When we think about conflict in the workplace, we often think of an obvious personality clash between two people which everyone is aware of and they try to avoid like the plague. In effect, it is an overt conflict and, if we think about it, this type of conflict is quite extreme and, relatively speaking, not that common. Much more common, and less obvious, is the covert conflict that happens on a regular basis between people and/or teams. Such conflict can damage an individual’s or team’s performance, resulting in the company underperforming. In economic terms, the damage such covert conflict causes could be referred to as “performance opportunity costs” i.e., the cost of opportunities lost through underperformance arising from covert conflict. What is this covert conflict and where does it arise from?
Think about a time you had a robust discussion about an idea or decision and walked away with a spring in your step, feeling energized and engaged. No conflict, right? Even though it was a robust sharing of ideas and debating different aspects, you walked away with a positive feeling. Now, think about a time you had a similar level of robust discussion and walked away angry, irritated, annoyed, agitated and/or upset. Conflict, right? But what’s the difference? They were both robust discussions but one had no negative effect on you while the other left you distracted, possibly for days. The difference is the negative emotional turmoil that the second situation caused. This resultant emotional turmoil is the cause of the conflict and the conflict is often unstated. We often attempt to hold in the frustration or the anger and don’t specifically name it during the discussion but if we bring it away with us, a low-level conflict situation has been created.
For any business owner, executive or manager reading this, an obvious question is “so what?” So what if low-level conflict situations arise? So what if two staff members or managers are now a little more wary of each other? What’s that got to do with my business? It has a lot to do with your business. Two people engaged in a low-level conflict situation might start to avoid each other and are less likely to share ideas again so openly; nor will they voluntarily share important information. They might start to make decisions informed by the conflict rather than make the best decision for the organization. They might even start complaining to others about each other, drawing other people into the conflict. So, from the company’s perspective, such a conflict undermines the organization’s ability to maximize performance, resulting in lost opportunities, squandered resources, lost focus on the company’s objectives and poor decisions. Business is difficult enough without adding those unnecessary factors into the mix.
What causes this conflict? Why can we have a discussion with one person that has no negative outcomes while someone else can drive us to distraction? Ultimately, conflict is a result of our expectations. We enter situations with specific expectations, whether we realize it or not. When those expectations are not met, it generates emotional turmoil, leading to the conflict. Where are our expectations generated from? They typically come from either our values or our desires and may be a combination of both. They can also come from the process of “being led to believe”, either by being told that x will happen or by previous experience providing indicators of what to expect. This is why the concept of “managing expectations” is so important in business.
To finish off, a challenge for you: over the next few days, identify situations that generate negative emotional turmoil for you and identify what the cause is. Did you have expectations that weren’t met? If so, where did those expectations come from? And don’t forget to come back and share your learnings.
Irial O'Farrell is an executive coach who is focused on working with executives to develop effective leadership. She has a particular interest in values in the workplace and has written the book Values-Not Just for the Office Wall Plaque: How Personal and Company Values Intersect