Impact of Unresolved Conflict in the Workplace

Whenever multiple people work together toward the same goal, conflict is inevitable. It’s natural for people to disagree about how to accomplish tasks or what should be prioritized. As organizations grow, the opportunities for disputes increase. 

Conflict on its own is not a problem. When handled appropriately, it can highlight important matters and strengthen your business. However, conflict can fester and harm your entire organization if it is not addressed. 

No matter how many people are involved in your company, it’s worthwhile to have dispute resolution methods prepared. They can be the difference between quickly and effectively managing disagreements and allowing them to turn into serious problems. 

Beneficial vs. Destructive Workplace Conflict

On its own, conflict is neutral. It is not harmful for people to disagree about how to handle issues. In fact, a certain amount of friction can push an organization to grow. When people feel comfortable expressing their opinions and sharing their ideas, it can lead to disagreements, but resolving them can help the company grow. 

This is considered a beneficial conflict. Signs that a dispute could be good for the organization include:

  • Discussions about the topic remain respectful
  • The subject of the debate is related to the organization and does not involve personal topics
  • Both sides have strong arguments
  • The parties are on even footing, with no power imbalance putting one at risk 

In situations like this, disputing parties will often resolve their disagreement or “agree to disagree” without outside intervention. 

Destructive conflict looks different. Instead of two parties respectfully disagreeing about how to handle a work matter, it becomes personal. This may look like:

  • Focusing arguments on the other party rather than the subject at hand
  • Arguing just because of a personal grievance or personality clash
  • “Resolving” disagreements because one party fears for their job, not because they have found a satisfactory solution

These are the circumstances when conflict can become destructive. If disagreements occur due to interpersonal friction, if they focus on personal attacks, or if a power imbalance makes one party feel unsafe, it’s a sign something has gone wrong. These disputes can put the entire organization at risk if they are not addressed. 

Risks of Negative Conflict Within Organizations 

When conflict goes unchecked, it’s harder for everyone in a company to accomplish their goals. Over time, it can lead to problems like:

  • Reduced productivity: When there is no set way for people to handle disagreements, problems can linger for weeks or months. Unresolved disputes are stressful and distracting, making it harder for employees to focus on their responsibilities. The longer conflicts go unresolved, the more they will affect overall productivity.
  • Communication problems: Conflict makes it harder to communicate effectively. Without appropriate dispute resolution methods, staff may struggle to clearly communicate important information within your organization. They may leave out critical details that could cause arguments, or they may avoid communicating at all. 
  • Absenteeism and burnout: As disputes drag on, they can cause more than productivity issues. Stressed and unhappy employees are more likely to mentally “check out” from their work. This can look like workers taking more mental health days or choosing to do the bare minimum when they come in. It can also look like employees burning out and missing goals because they can’t focus on their work. 
  • Higher turnover: Stressed and burned-out employees are less likely to remain at your organization. Workers who fail to meet goals or do their work may have their employment terminated. When disputes are allowed to fester, they can increase the number of people who quit or get fired, creating higher turnover at your organization. 
  • Lawsuits: Some destructive conflicts can become legal problems over time. For example, if an employee believes they are facing discrimination and their concerns are not addressed, they could have grounds to file a claim against your organization. 

The longer conflicts last, the more serious they become. It’s better to address issues quickly with effective dispute-resolution techniques so they never have the opportunity to get this bad.

Resolving Workplace Conflict Healthily

There are many options available for avoiding destructive conflicts in the workplace. Strategies that can help you keep your staff focused and comfortable resolving disputes include:

  • Foster an environment of constructive criticism. When people are comfortable making constructive comments on ideas and practices, criticism is less likely to be seen as a personal attack. When everyone can make and take constructive criticism, conflicts are less likely. 
  • Do not penalize people for disagreements. When disagreements arise, ensure no one is punished for bringing the matter to your attention. This includes singling them out in front of the office, which can cause interpersonal friction you may not see. Instead, hear them out and resolve matters privately and fairly. 
  • Identify the root of grievances before taking action. Sometimes, the things people bring up in a conflict are only tangentially related to their actual dispute. Drill down on the matter to identify the real source of the problem before trying to solve it. For example, suppose someone feels discriminated against because they received a poor performance review. The real problem may be an interpersonal conflict with their manager rather than genuinely poor performance or actual discrimination. Your actions should be based on what’s really going on.
  • Seek outside assistance when necessary. Conflict resolution sometimes requires an unbiased third party to sort out what’s happening. When a dispute could turn into a legal concern, don’t hesitate to get outside help from an experienced mediator.

Mediation is one of the most effective ways to address workplace conflict collaboratively. A skilled mediator helps all parties feel heard and encourages them to work together to find a compromise or solution that satisfies everyone. This is significantly better for organizational cohesion than adversarial methods like arbitration or going to court. At the Law Offices of Denise Eaton May, P.C., our trained mediators understand how conflict can impact the workplace. We are dedicated to helping our clients achieve fair, collaborative solutions to organizational disputes. Learn more about how we can assist you by scheduling a free consultation today.

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