How SMEs can avoid the cost of conflict

By Nicole Posner

Conflict costs, emotionally and financially. It can cause stress, ill health and absenteeism affecting morale and productivity and ultimately, your company’s bottom line. So what might be the key causes of conflict and how can you prevent them from costing your business money?

Change and transition are natural byproducts of a growing business.  Some members of your team might embrace the restructure with enthusiasm and view it as a new opportunity to flourish.  For others, it can present new challenges and difficulties.  Many may feel threatened that their jobs are at risk or their role may become obsolete as new technology replaces manpower.  They may start to behave out of character as uncertainty overtakes logic. There might be a personality clash with a new line manager who, in the grander scheme of things, is a great strategist but not such a great people person. The arrival of a new boss could incite unhealthy peer competition, jealousy or power struggles as top talent seek praise or promotion.

Expansion might attract an influx of millennials talking a language that baby boomers don’t understand or a work ethos that they do not respect. Methods of communicating might be worlds or generations apart. The informal, casual, weekly meetings might now become serious, formal affairs with rigid agendas and more black coffee than Budweiser.

The common thread here is change and how it is adapted and integrated into the business without upsetting the apple cart. The company culture might have been the reason top talent were drawn to the company in the first place and the new initiatives and changes may well be the reason they leave.  And if they do stay, you may sense a disruptive undercurrent which could potentially lead to conflict.

While some conflict can be healthy and encourage positive competition and energy, unhealthy conflict can cause contagious negativity. If left unchecked, it could escalate into a destructive environment causing a decline in motivation, morale and ultimately productivity.  It can trickle through to customers and start to impact those relationships you’ve worked hard to nurture. You may find your workforce becomes divided rather than united. Not an ideal situation when you need quite the opposite of your team at this crucial junction.

So how can you ensure your workforce stays committed and conflict-free and how can you show them your commitment to their emotional wellbeing?

The importance of good communication should not be underestimated and should be implemented from boardroom to shop floor. New lines of reporting and new ways of working can be confusing. Information can sometimes be misinterpreted or worse still, not relayed at all.   It can take time to learn new protocol and procedures so patience and encouragement are essential. An intolerant approach or short fuse won’t win you any loyal followers.

Have an open-door policy to encourage your team to discuss any concerns before they become something more problematic.  In a smaller, more informal business this is often the norm and embedded in their company culture.

However, as organisations expand, sometimes these opportunities get lost in the process.  People no longer feel heard, respected or valued.  Listen to your team. This will build trust and loyalty and show them they are still important and appreciated. Strive for better communication and it will help forge strong working relationships.

So what happens if conflict escalates and matters take a downward spiral?  Ignoring it won’t improve it.  Leaving those involved to deal with it on their own will just add fuel to the smoldering fire.

Cracks in the company’s structure will start to be exposed and before you know it, the foundations of a solid business could start to weaken.

If you or the HR department can’t resolve inter relational conflict issues, it might be worth considering an alternative method of resolution such as mediation. While mediators are not magicians, the mediation process is magical and is a common-sense solution to resolving internal conflict.  It can repair and rebuild damaged relationships amongst employees. It can help them create a sustainable agreement for the future to prevent things going sour again. It can address recurring themes of fairness, justice, inequality and communication problems.

The business case for mediation is also very convincing.  If employees’ stress levels and anxieties are reduced, so will their absenteeism alleviating the pressure on the rest of the team to cover for their absent colleagues.  It can save management valuable time and money investigating grievances or dealing with matters if they progress to a Tribunal.

The beauty of mediation is that it is a confidential informal process and can be implemented at any stage of the dispute. It gives those involved the chance to have a reasoned, reasonable and dignified conversation. It is voluntary and self-determined so the likelihood is stacked highly in favour of the parties involved sticking to their resolution or agreement. And finally, it is future focused, so removes that sense of ‘no way back’. The aim is to build bridges not burn them.

Employees are your frontline ambassadors.  If you look after their wellbeing, they will look after your interests.

Risk assessment of your business may identify many areas that could harm or jeopardize your big plans and ultimately cost you money.  Conflict need not be one of them if it is identified and addressed early. The reward will be a loyal, harmonious and productive team who will support you through exciting times of change and growth.

Nicole Posner is an independent Workplace Mediator