HR Management & Compliance, Talent

Q&A: Letting Conflict Persist Might Be Beneficial

Conflicts in the workplace invite immediate action and swift resolution. I recently spoke to a couple of experts who disagree with that approach.conflict

CrisMarie Campbell and Susan Clarke cofounded thrive! Inc. and believe there is a certain beauty in conflict.

HR Daily Advisor: HR managers often learn methods of conflict resolution as a way to respond to what is largely considered a problem: conflict. What have you learned that supplants that notion?

Campbell and Clark: According to the CPP Global Human Capital Report, employees in U.S. companies spend approximately 2.8 hours each week involved in conflict. This doesn’t seem like a big deal at first glance, but it equates to approximately $359 billion in hours paid that are filled with—and focused on—conflict instead of positive productivity.

We’ll start by saying we don’t see conflict as the problem. Instead, how people approach conflict is the true obstacle.

Most people have had negative experiences with conflict and therefore want to get rid of it by avoiding, managing, or defusing it.

However, what often happens is that the unresolved differences usually go underground, causing more havoc than good. We can all remember a time when someone else blew up on us or when we blew up on someone else, right?

In our experience working with organizations of all sizes, from Fortune 100 companies to start-ups, we have come to the conclusion that conflict is a natural and healthy indicator. It means you have passionate people with differing expertise, personalities, and opinions.

What’s more, we see this as an opportunity rather than a problem. The key lies in knowing how to handle the tension that arises and learning how to transmute that tension into creativity, innovation, and tangible bottom-line results.

HR Daily Advisor: I understand you believe that resolving conflicts too early might stunt employee and business growth. Why is that?

Campbell and Clark: If you look at the numbers in that same report, you’ll see that 85% of employees experience some kind of conflict, while 29% of employees nearly constantly experience conflict.

So, employees are doing the best they can to deal with the conflict that comes up in the workplace, but most have never received training on how to effectively navigate it.

In fact, 60% of employees never received basic conflict management classes or training for conflict resolution in the workplace. When training was offered, 95% state that it helped them positively work through conflict and arrive at mutually beneficial outcomes.

It’s clear that employees without conflict training are simply reacting in the only way they know how. They seek to resolve the tension and the ambiguity as quickly as possible, which often does not allow for being seen and heard.

We’ve found that is what most people want in a conflict situation. Having their ideas and opinions heard and considered often trumps the need for agreement or the glory of being right.

When they are not seen and heard, there is no space to build bridges in the relationship, seek new ideas, or experience transformation.

HR Daily Advisor: Is it worth allowing employees to be embroiled in conflict for longer just for the benefit of their growth?

Campbell and Clark: Yes, we believe that learning to tolerate tension has historically been a missing piece of the leadership development puzzle, and it affects retention more than we realize.

It’s not just a cognitive process. As leaders, we must help employees cultivate the skill of tolerating tension.

We’ve noticed that once you make this a priority, it has the potential to positively shift the entire corporate culture.

According to a study from Columbia University, companies with a healthy corporate culture report, on average, a turnover rate of just 13.9% compared with 48.4% at companies with a poor culture.

HR Daily Advisor: What do people get wrong about handling conflicts?

Campbell and Clark: So many things! It’s normal and natural for people to have different personalities and to like and dislike others’ traits.

People usually assume that handling conflict is about handling the other person when, in fact, it is learning to handle yourself, your energy, your beliefs, your voice, and your curiosity.

When we coach leaders and individuals on teams, two common worries come up about being upfront:

  • I don’t want to hurt their feelings.
  • They’re going to get mad at me.

These seem like they are about the other person, but they are really about an individual’s learning to tolerate tension.

We help people develop this capacity, which transforms their relationship and culture at work. Our clients report that this also helps their relationships in their personal lives, too.

Learning how to be honest and direct while being curious about the other person is what builds resilient relationships, and resilient relationships create healthy teams and successful organizational cultures.

HR Daily Advisor: Please explain how business silos and open-door policies factor into this approach.

Campbell and Clark: When leaders don’t create a culture where collective goals take priority, team members resort to working in silos, where they are focused on their own area of expertise.

If employees don’t know what their team is committed to achieving, they’ll default to focusing on what they can control. Silos are generally created by people trying to do their best without a collective goal or purpose.

Without the connection to a larger collective goal, they may miss WHY they are doing what they are doing.

Finally, if you’re the leader, and you say you have an open-door policy, it does not necessarily mean people feel invited to come in.

As a leader, you are in a position of power. People take that seriously.

If you really want to know what is going on with your people, you have to prime the pump. That means you have to actively engage with your people about their differences.

Look for cues that they’re choosing to keep quiet instead of speaking up. Share your struggle, and acknowledge your challenges, as well, to help them feel comfortable sharing theirs. Be willing to be curious and show the human aspect of your leadership.

HR Daily Advisor: What is something you wish everyone knew about conflict?

Campbell and Clark: Conflict can be beautiful. No, it’s not easy or fun, but the magic of a team is that people are better together. The catch is that the “better” part can only happen when you are willing to risk saying something that is true for you while staying curious about its impact on the other person.

One of our favorite slogans is, “It’s not what you do. It’s what you do next.”

Even if you say something someone reacts to, you can always become curious about the impact. When you do, you open the door to transformation, creativity, and innovation.

That is the beauty of conflict.