Fight, flight or face it?

Fight, flight or face it?

Celebrating the effective management of conflict at work

A global research report by OPP® in association with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development
July 2008
by Robert McHenry, CEO, OPP Ltd


We undertook this research in an attempt to quantify the current state of conflict at work, suspecting that ‘conflict’ was something of a taboo word in many organisational vocabularies, as it suggests that things have run out of control. We wanted to explore how people in different countries view conflict at work, which factors they see as destructive and how they have seen conflict situations improve or deteriorate as a result of different behaviours.

We wondered what employees would like to change, and what benefits they hoped for in improving the management of conflict. In short, we wanted to explore how conflict might be better exploited as a source of energy and innovation for organisations.

What do we mean by ‘conflict’? It is potentially a very subjective term. Some people might view conflict as a sharp verbal disagreement, while for others it might mean a long-running interdivisional feud. For the purposes of this study, we have defined conflict as any workplace disagreement that disrupts the flow of work.

We live in a world where conflict in all its forms is increasingly visible, whether or not it is actually more prevalent than in the past. The media seizes upon opportunities to present strife: between politicians, within celebrity marriages and sports teams, or between factions, countries or faith groups. We seem to be particularly fond of unearthing it where one might expect there to be harmony; there’s something compelling about the heated dramas that play out between old friends, mentors and their protégées, ex-partners in crime.

Why is conflict so attractive, at least as a spectator sport? Just as two surfaces rubbing against one another produce friction, conflict creates energy and drives change. The intense desire to move away from what once worked well and felt right can be a powerful motivator.

Think of the social changes after the Second World War, the swing to the left in 1997 after 18 years of Thatcherism, the differences in values between generations X and Y. If conflict is about difference, then difference creates a dynamic that can propel teams and organisations both backwards and forwards. The challenge for today’s organisations is to harness this energy in a positive way.

Clients sometimes tell us that their biggest problem is the lack of conflict in their organisations. They say that autocratic senior leaders create a culture where people prefer to ‘keep their heads down’ and not offer feedback or ideas; the anticipation of conflict inhibits performance. They aspire to a culture where challenge is welcomed by leaders and where differences can be celebrated and fuel innovation.

Others tell us that dysfunctional senior teams in which warring egos fence across the boardroom table create a climate where everyone fights their corner. They talk of silos, territorial defence, a blame culture and a win–lose style of decision-making; the addiction to conflict subverts performance. They long for constructive debate in which business rationale holds sway over force of personality, and a climate in which learning, rather than retribution, follows mistakes.

Organisations need to find the middle course, and this is where business psychology has a part to play. In his most recent book, Beyond Reason (Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate by Roger Fisher and Daniel Shapiro, Penguin 2006), the world-renowned mediator and Harvard lawyer Roger Fisher argues that negotiators must uncover emotions and use them in their interactions. Emotional needs sit under the surface of both sides of a conflict, and solutions will be compromised if these are ignored. Our realities and our relationships at work have important emotional components, and every employee and leader must find ways to examine and articulate their own emotions, while listening to those of other people – in short, to converse.

Conversation is the key and the need for conversation cannot be over-emphasised. In some large organisations, daily tensions can stem from using English as a common business language, which only serves to emphasise national and cultural differences. Culture can determine which emotions ought to be expressed in particular situations – even what emotions are to be felt. It dictates the style of expression, even when emotions are far beneath the surface. Apparent abruptness in an email between an Eastern European and his southern US counterpart – used to a warmer informality – can set off a chain of misapprehensions that can spiral into inter-regional contempt. Restoring employees’ sense that they are on the same side can be difficult when they are divided by time differences and where messages are delivered impersonally.

Psychometric instruments can help here. The results they yield can be the basis for discussing differences, for sharing emotional needs (which might be very different from those on display) and for laying down a common framework in which difficult sentiments can be located. In skilled hands, psychometric instruments also offer HR professionals, managers and leaders a way to broach those conversations with their teams, or to facilitate dialogue between individuals. More than this, they can open the door for people to better understand themselves, their own needs, how they come across to others and how to adapt to the situation and the personality in front of them. They can set in train enriched and progressive conversations, particularly where conflict is a starting point.

When we work with clients to prevent leadership failure, to remedy organisational underperformance or to turn struggling teams around, it is invariably because the right kind of talking has ceased. It takes something other than the knowledge that things should be different to reignite the dialogue, and we find that psychometric tools have a unique part to play in starting the conversation and making the differences constructive.

Executive Summary

Our study found that the majority of employees (85%) have to deal with conflict to some degree and 29% do so ‘always’ or ‘frequently’. In Germany this latter figure jumps to 56%, while employees in Ireland (37%) and the US (36%) also spend a significant amount of time managing disputes.

The level at which most conflict is observed is between entry-level/front-line roles (cited by 34% of respondents), but conflict also exists at the most senior levels: one in eight employees (12%) say that disagreements among their senior team are frequent or continual.

The primary causes of workplace conflict are seen as personality clashes and warring egos (49%), followed by stress (34%) and heavy workloads (33%).

Culture also plays a part in the perception of causes: as Brazilian workers are more likely to see a clash of values as a major cause of conflict (24%). In France, 36% of employees saw a lack of honesty as a key factor, compared with a global average of 26%.

Unsurprisingly, poorly managed conflicts have a cost attached to them: the average employee spends 2.1 hours a week dealing with conflict. For the UK alone, that translates to 370 million working days lost every year as a result of conflict in the workplace. One in six (16%) say a recent dispute escalated in duration and/or intensity, only 11% of those surveyed have never experienced a disagreement that escalated.

Various negative outcomes arise from conflicts. 27% of employees have seen conflict lead to personal attacks, and 25% have seen it result in sickness or absence. Indeed, nearly one in ten (9%) even saw it lead to a project failure. 41% of employees think older people handle conflict most effectively, so life experience evidently helps people become more effective. The skill of leaders in this regard is the key determinant, however. Seven out of ten employees (70%) see managing conflict as a ‘very’ or ‘critically’ important leadership skill, while 54% of employees think managers could better handle disputes by addressing underlying tensions before things go wrong.

However, there is an evident discrepancy between how well managers think they handle conflict and how well they actually do: a third of managers (31%) think they handle disagreements well, but only 22% of nonmanagers agree. Furthermore, nearly half of non-managers (43%) think their bosses don’t deal with conflict as well as they should, compared to only 23% of managers who share this view.

Training is the biggest driver for high-quality outcomes from conflict. Less than half (44%) of all those questioned have received training in how to manage workplace conflict. This figure rises to 60% in Brazil and 57% in the US. Moreover, 72% of Belgian workers and 73% of those in France have had none. Where training does exist, it adds value: over 95% of people receiving training as part of leadership development or on formal external courses say that it helped them in some way. A quarter (27%) say it made them more comfortable and confident in managing disputes and 58% of those who have been trained say they now look for win–win outcomes from conflict. 85% of people change the way they approach conflict over the course of their working lives; they become more proactive and take it less personally as a result of experience.

Among all employees, 76% have seen conflict lead to a positive outcome, such as better understanding of others (41%) or a better solution to a workplace problem (29%). This figure rises to 84% and 81% in Brazil and the US, respectively – the countries where training is most common. Belgium and France, where employees experience the least training, also have the lowest incidence of positive outcomes.

This shows a clear link between training in conflict management and conflict’s impact as a catalyst for positive change.

Our study demonstrates that destructive conflict is not something organisations anywhere should accept as an inevitable feature of working life. If organisations invest in building the awareness of self and others on which better relationships depend, they will see the energy created by interpersonal friction generate sparks of creativity, rather than consuming flames. HR, leaders and employees must all accept their responsibility for becoming competent conflict managers.