Conflict occurs when one person's ideas or actions are in opposition to another person’s ideas or actions.
Sometimes conflict can be beneficial because it causes people to consider a different approach. Conflict is also beneficial when it causes real change in people’s hearts and minds—something we call adaptive change.
When adaptive change occurs, it is far more profound than a simple change in routine or decision making. Despite the advantages of conflict, problems occur when conflict creates an uncomfortable and stressful situation.
There are two types of conflict common in the workplace, institutional and collegial.
Institutional conflict is tension between work groups within the organization where people work. An example might be conflict when employees compete against each other or when groups within the organization compete against each other. It can also be conflict between management and employees since there are sometimes clashes over ideas and decisions. These clashes can result in employees perceiving the environment to be unfair or ill-considered. Institutional conflict can also be productive if it leads to positive change for the company and its employees.
This conflict also occurs when employees compete against each other or when groups within the organization compete
against each other. Institutional conflict can also be productive if it leads to positive change for the company and its employees.
Collegial conflict is conflict between two co-workers. This type of conflict often occurs because of assumptions, misinformation, or biases based on the other person’s idiosyncrasies, preferences or opinions. These conflicts can be resolved if both parties agree to be more open-minded, tolerant, and respectful towards one another.
When we are in conflict with another person and the situation becomes too stressful, we often respond in a manner which the American physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon describes as the fight-or-flight response.
The fight-or-flight response allows people to function in dangerous situations by adapting their behaviour as needed. Conflict is stressful and therefore, our fight-or-flight response often kicks in.
In our bodies a sequence of physiological changes occurs whenever we feel extreme stress. These changes prepare us to stand and defend ourselves or to run away.
Blood is diverted from the brain and other parts of the body to flow into muscle tissue.
At the same time, heart rate and blood pressure both increase and muscles tense in anticipation of needing increased strength or speed.
In both institutional or collegial conflict situations, the fight-or-flight response can be non-productive or even dangerous and destructive. Because of the reduced blood flow to the brain, our ability to negotiate and think is diminished.
In this state we are less creative and responsive, and we are limited in our ability to find solutions to the problem.
Not all conflict results in the fight-or-flight response. By remaining calm, positive and flexible, we can avoid reaching the heightened state of arousal that leads to the fight-or-flight response.
If you find yourself getting heated—a good indication that fight-or-flight is kicking in, take a moment to calm down. Breathe deeply and talk to yourself in a way that calms you. Watch out for signs that you are talking yourself up, making the situation worse with your own negative thoughts.
Unresolved, continuous conflict, over time, can destroy one’s health and relationships. Being in a continuous state of fight-or-flight diminishes the body’s resources and can result in a state of emotional exhaustion and depression.
Repeated fight-or-flight responses increase the chances of compromising your health and safety. The longer the conflict goes unresolved, the greater the potential for undesirable consequences.
Personality clashes are bad for business. They can result in decreased productivity and increased absenteeism. Workplace conflict is stressful and unpleasant. The stress of unresolved conflict can often spill over into other areas of a person’s life.
If you are experiencing conflict at work, one of the most effective ways to reduce your stress around the situation is to change the way you think about the situation, and to change your behaviour.
Since your thoughts and behaviour are the two things you have absolute control over, it’s a great place to start.
We can change both by implementing the following suggestions:
• Accept that people are different. It is more effective to see people as they are rather than focusing on how they should be.
• Think about how much energy you are wasting in your dislike for the other person, energy that could be invested in more productive ways. In other words, let it go. Don’t put energy into things you cannot change and you have no control over. Instead, focus on what you do have control over, your own thoughts and behaviour.
• Don’t gossip or complain to others.
• Be respectful and polite, or at least neutral, to the other person.
• Work towards making your workplace a friendlier environment.
You may also find relaxation training, mindfulness, assertiveness training, and communication skills helpful in dealing with conflict.
There are many online resources, books, and workshops to assist you in managing conflict and stress more effectively.
If you need additional support dealing with conflict, please contact Walmsley and make an appointment with one of our trained counsellors.
For more ideas about promoting health and safety at your worksite go to North American Occupational Safety and Health Week website www.naosh.org