The Painful Hidden Cost of Conflict and how to escape it

Sep 5, 2017DISC, Engagement, Human Resources, Leadership, Motivation, Recruitment & Selection

At the Complete Leader Ireland, we’re three months into our first Public Cohort. We’re passionate about developing our existing and emerging leaders, especially as we see so much change on the Leadership landscape and the impending ‘Leadership Drought.’


We don’t believe in shying away from the controversial issues facing our Leaders and their organisations. In fact we encourage our participants to bring these into the classroom so that we can work on them collaboratively, in real time. Conflict Management according to our Leaders is one of the more persistent and demanding competencies.


Conflict is found everywhere, from infants in the creche fighting over toys to grown adults having a stand off over the last biscuit in the Boardroom. Where two or more human beings are, conflict is.


Think about it. When was the last conflict you experienced at work? Was it an explosion between colleagues? Or was it an encounter that you were involved in yourself? How much time did you spend ruminating on it? Did you have to deliberately avoid someone and for how long? What was the impact on your work?


Just for a moment close your eyes and imagine a world without conflict, a world of harmony where everyone is polite and respectful, where no one speaks to you with a tone you don’t like or says anything that could be perceived as sarcastic…


No? Can’t picture it? Of course not. It certainly would be a bland, vanilla world. The truth is conflict and the differences between us, are what makes life interesting, ever changing and challenging. Conflict managed effectively builds trust and better relationships in the long term, and prevents Groupthink. Our differences are catalysts for our creativity.


The trouble is not conflict itself but what happens when you the Leader don’t have an effective means of managing conflict. It’s time to look closely. What type of leader are you? Perhaps it’s time to take your head out of the sand, it’s not going away, but let’s begin to make effective changes right now. Picture yourself getting really comfortable dealing with and leaning into Conflict.


Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of creative alternatives for responding to conflict…’ Dorothy Thompson




The Startling Truth about the Cost of Conflict


The tangible things that impact the bottom line are what we focus on. A drop in Sales, a ineffective Product, we have hard data to hand and we move into action. What do we do when it’s difficult to quantify, such as understanding how much conflict actually costs us?


In 2006 Total Conflict Management a UK Consulting organisation conducted studies that revealed the true costs both human and financial of unresolved Workplace conflict. 25 percent of employees said that avoiding conflict led to sickness or absence from work. Nearly 10 percent reported that workplace conflict led to project failure and more than one-third said that conflict resulted in someone leaving the company.


  • According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), the average UK employer is involved in 30 formal disciplinary cases and 9 formal grievance cases per year, spending approximately 12 days managing them.


  • The average employer receives 3 employment tribunal applications per year and spends 16.4 days preparing for them.


  • Bullying costs employers 18 million lost working days and £2 billion in lost revenues per year.


  • 10% of employees have experienced bullying in the last six months.


  • Research into 16 bullying cases in one organisation arrived at costs of £20,000 per case.


Figures from the US state that the average Organisation spends 2.8 hours per week dealing with internal, Team based conflict. Conflict is directly affecting your bottom line, isn’t it time you developed a strategy for it?


What these figures don’t include is the impact to your well-being as Leader and to your Senior Team members as a result. We can’t measure all the lack of sleep, increased stress, doctor’s visits, coping mechanisms- extra food, alcohol, caffeine? Additionally there’s the knock on impact to your personal relationships. At a guess it all adds up to much more than you ever realised?


One final Caveat- conflict often starts out small but can go ‘viral’. When your organisation is an SME (Small to Medium Enterprise) it’s hard to avoid and the issue can become all consuming.



Let’s begin with a definition of Conflict


I chose to defer here to Complete Leader Faculty Member Andy Johnson who has studied conflict, works with teams to enable conflict resolution and team health and has written a book ‘Pushing back Entropy’ on the subject. He believes that at the heart of conflict is a person who has a demand that they have created and someone else stands in the way of what they think they’re entitled to, and that someone else has to suffer as a result. He writes about his personal contention that devaluation of others always precedes conflict in the form of direct or indirect attack.


This process becomes clearer again if we look at it through the eyes of Axiology, the brain child of Robert Hartman,which forms a significant piece of the TTI TrimetrixHD™ assessment that we use with clients.


Axiology is a way of objectifying value, the goodness or badness of things. It distinguishes between three aspects or dimensions of things and people around us and goes on to suggest that we can value any of those at three levels. We value things or people:


  • systemically: when we assess them to be in the category they claim to be.
  • extrinsically: when we assess them to be good in comparison to others that are similar.
  • intrinsically: when we assess them as inherently and uniquely valuable.


According to Dr Andy Johnson in his article on Devaluing others in Conflict


‘Conflict always moves through devaluation. Here’s how I think it moves. It seems as if we first devalue others that stand in the way of our demand intrinsically. This is essential sub-rational devaluation driven almost solely by emotion that is triggered within us. Pure subjectivism governs this initial process. Once we have begun to devalue them intrinsically, we then move toward comparison. We compare them to others, ourselves or to a standard that is often unrealistic. We find them lacking in any or all of these comparisons. Once we find them deficient, we move toward systemic devaluation and at some level, determine that they fail to meet the barest minimal definition of humanness. We dehumanize them.’


Johnson believes that this was the essence of what Hitler did in the Second World War.


Why Conflict Management Skills set a leader apart


In a Wall Street Journal Article on Conflict, Leadership and Succession Coach David Dotlich’s research identified ‘eagerness to please’ as one of the leading reasons Executives aren’t successful.


According to Judith Glasser, Executive Coach and author of Conversational Intelligence, employers are increasingly seeking out executives with a strong Conflict Management competency. She adds that it’s not that organisations want combative leaders but if leaders avoid conflict, it often coincides with them avoiding hard decisions and facing problems head on.


From a young age, we either learn to avoid, shut down, minimise or comply with Conflict. Most of us were brought up to be ‘polite’ so as a Leader if you have a developed set of skills to cope with Conflict, then you are already a world apart. As a culture, the majority of us are Conflict averse.


Dealing with Conflict is the way to Healthy Team Performance. Effective Leaders keep teams cohesive and working towards a solution that serves everyone according to Ron Price in The Complete Leader Book




How do I become better at spotting and handling conflict before it costs me?


The CPP study found that the primary causes of workplace conflict are related to personality clashes, followed by stress and workload.


  1. Get curious about conflict, find someone who manages it well, what do they do differently? Read books on the subject. Lean into it and think of Conflict as your teacher, find the lesson it has to teach you.


  1. See Conflict as a positive part of a process- have a clear picture of a win win outcome. Impediments pave the way for innovation. Furthermore having social brains, our emotions are contagious so if you have a positive outlook, it may well be mirrored back to you.


  1. Awareness comes next. What’s your conflict tendency? Using TTI’s DISC profile to understand your Behavioural Style, how we deal with life in terms of Problems, People, Pace and Procedures. For example a high Dominance (Red) tends to jump into problems or challenges, and a low Dominance tends to hesitate and calculate what they should do next. Knowing what your style is helps you to be more aware and avoid the extremes. Additionally when we understand and have a common language for how people behave differently to us, it gives us a greater ability to appreciate difference and thus prevent or reduce conflict.


  1. Understanding Differences. TTI’s Driving Forces are the different drives or values we have that inform our passion about some things and aversion to others. According to Andy Johnston, when you value x (ie academic knowledge) and I value y (ie past experiences) we have fuel for judging each other’s priorities in the midst of a developing conflict. Knowing these differences in advance, however, allows us to anticipate the coming clash of values. Understanding our diversity in terms of the way we each value different things is another key to preventing and reducing team conflict.


Conflict DISC

Extract from a sample DISC Report


General Characteristics- Problems and Challenges:


Andy will be quite cooperative by nature and attempt to avoid confrontation as he wants to be seen as a person who is “easy” to work with.


Natural and Adapted Style:


When he has strong feelings about a particular problem, you should expect to hear these feelings, and they will probably be expressed in an emotional manner. Because of his trust and willing acceptance of people, he may misjudge the abilities of others. Andy likes to participate in decision making. He likes working for managers who make quick decisions. He prefers not disciplining people. He may sidestep direct disciplinary action because he wants to maintain the friendly relationship.


  1. Look to your family for evidence of how you dealt with Conflict at home. This is essential, lots of families don’t model healthy conflict resolution and it’s very likely you’ve taken this model with you as an adult and Leader. According to Dr Margaret Paul unless your parents or caregivers discussed and resolved their conflicts, caring for themselves and each other- then you have no role modeling for healthy conflict resolution.


  1. Trust your gut, if you see, hear or feel there’s conflict brewing, then address it, ask a Team member with strong EQ’s opinion, find out what you can but don’t wait until it festers.


  1. Deal with the emotions first. Sometimes people require time to work through an amygdala hijack before being ready for solution focused factual conversation.


  1. Counter-intuitively Rodger Price of The Complete Leader Faculty has a process to use Conflict as a way of building relationships. He uses Root Cause Analysis. He says that he learned as an Engineer, when a product fails you asks at least 5 whys as to what really led to the failure of that product? It’s the same kind of philosopy with Conflict Management. You really seek to understand the root cause of the situation.


  1. Use Rodger’s Q & L process. Question and listen. Keep asking open questions for example, someone makes a statement and you ask ‘well how do you mean?’ ‘tell me more about that..?’ This gets to this deeper level and builds the relationship. Keep in mind that at the heart of conflict is a feeling of being threatened or a perceived loss. Conflict is often characterised by high emotion and low trust.


  1. Practice Empathy. It’s difficult to resolve conflict when you cannot see the other person’s point of view. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with them or give in to their demands but in doing so you become less entrenched in your own position. Rory Rowland, author of My Best Boss Ever says “one of the techniques I used was you couldn’t restate your own position until you stated the other person’s position to their approval. When you’re angry and hurt, the last thing you want to do is restate the other person’s perspective.” This forced both employees to step out of their complaints and look at the other side.


  1. The next part of this process is to tell your truth. As per Stephen Covey, first seek to understand and then to be understood.


  1. Sacrifice short-term pain for long-term gain. Conflict for most people feels uncomfortable, but it’s much more painful to ignore the conflict, and allow the situation to deteriorate. Relationships are damaged, Teams are unproductive, people leave and the bottom line is severely impacted. When you feel uncomfortable, you’re doing the right thing.


  1. Practise heated rigorous debate. Ron Price in the book The Complete Leader discusses the process that Alfred P. Sloan from General Motors used. He was known to delay making important decisions until he and his Senior Team had intensely debated all options. This was not time wasting repartee but well informed, research based passionate argument. He believed that out of this process


  • His leaders could think critically and deeply about important matters


  • The Team could think creatively and bring about new ideas


  • They would develop many options so that if their Plan A failed then they would have other well thought out options to implement.


  • Group Wisdom came about from this rigorous and vigorous debate. He believed great minds were sharpened in the process.


  1. Get your Team to train in this process, Ron usually asks the team to first establish the ground rules and then identify fictional topics to debate. It’s important to encourage your Team to argue for and against a topic at the flip of a coin- the emphasis is not on winning or the issues but developing their skills in logic and expression of ideas.


  1. Once your Team has become skilled at practising rigorous debate then it’s time to move on to real issues currently facing the organisation. Learn more about this process in our Complete Leader Ireland Programme


  1. Practice your Negotiation techniques. See our blog on Leadership Negotiation as these skills play a crucial role in Conflict Management.


Final Thoughts


Change your relationship with conflict, be curious instead of averse, treat it like a teacher. Be positive and picture a win-win solution. Investigate your own familial Conflict management habits.


Take a TTI DISC or Driving Forces assessment to discover how people behave, think and are motivated in unique ways. Find a common language to articulate these differences.


Trust your gut, mind the emotions and use the 5 Whys. Question and actively listen until you are sure you have gotten to the Root Cause.


Practice empathy, assert the other party’s point of view and tell your truth about the situation.


Feel the short term pain and know you’re doing the right thing. Practice Rigorous debating on fictional topics and then move to real organisational topics.


Refresh your Negotiating techniques with the help of our Blog.


Realise that conflict is here to stay and that in embracing it, you are essentially deepening and strengthening the relationships in your organisation as well as boosting engagement.


What can you start doing differently today? How would your organisation look with less conflict?


If you find your motivation wavering, remember the painful hidden costs of Conflict!




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