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Exploring unresolved conflict and why leaders must learn to address it

May 6, 2024
By Bill Howatt

Photo: Adobe Stock

Most employees and leaders know there is no shortage of conflict in the workplace. It is estimated that 85% of employees at all levels experience conflict. One United States study reported that around $359 billion is paid per hour, or 2.8 hours per week is lost due to conflict. What may be most alarming is that over 50% of conflict is unresolved.

“The elephant in the room” is an old metaphorical idiom suggesting that everyone is aware of unresolved conflict and how it can erode teams and personal relationships in the workplace. Workplace conflict that is not addressed in a psychologically safe and inclusive manner and left to fester can increase distress. If the stress persists, it can increase the risk of the parties involved missing work due to feeling ill from worry and stress, resulting in mental illness disability leave or quitting. An estimated 40% of employees leave a job because of unhealthy and unresolved conflict.

Workplace conflict is expected. However, employees and leaders’ lack of knowledge and skills to confront it may not be fully understood. Not all conflict is bad; it has many positive benefits when dealt with effectively.

A recent research brief, Resolving Workplace Conflict with the Four Rs, provided insights into how employers can prepare employees to deal effectively with healthy and unhealthy conflict. Employees and leaders can be prepared to deal with their emotions in a way that allows them to discover meaningful conflict resolutions and emotional repairs versus allowing conflict to fester and drain workers’ potential.


Consequences of unresolved conflict

Overt conflict is conflict known to all parties involved. In contrast, not all parties involved in covert conflict may be aware of hurt feelings. Whether overt or covert, when conflict is left to fester without resolution, it lingers as unresolved conflict. A study at the University College London found that unresolved conflict was associated with higher levels of psychological distress among 25- to 34-year-olds.

Unresolved conflict is when a person’s interest has been ignored, neglected, or disrespected, resulting in hurt feelings that generate negative emotions and thoughts. Typical unresolved conflict consequences include tension, declined team performance, increased rumours, gossip, manager’s time, and miscommunication. It also increases presenteeism and absenteeism, disrupts or destroys relationships, lowers morale, and increases turnover and risk of dissatisfied customers. Unresolved conflict can negatively impact individuals’ mental health, increasing the risk of anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances, and self-harm.

Actions to decrease the risk of unresolved workplace conflict

Senior leadership, leaders, and employees should learn that conflict is unavoidable, and even though healthy conflict can create stress and hurt feelings, it is not bad. However, being educated does not mean someone has the required habits. Without skills to deal with conflict or trained experts to help employees through a conflict resolution process that all involved perceive is safe and fair, unresolved conflict likely will persist.

Conflict avoidance is one reason much conflict is unresolved. At the root of avoidance are conscious or unconscious fears that dealing with conflict will be uncomfortable or could result in feeling rejected, hurt, threatened, or unsafe.

  • Name it and focus on it — Employers can talk about the consequence of unresolved conflict to anchor that conflict often is not the problem; how people deal with conflict is. Every workplace can expect that when humans are brought together for a common purpose, there will be differences of opinion, disagreement, and disharmony. Employers can pre-frame the role of conflict resolution and set clear expectations for all employees to participate in conflict resolution. Engaging employees in humility can help them have regard for others and accept their roles in a conflict. In addition to discussing conflict and unresolved conflict, there are benefits to assessing the degree and types of conflict employees experience through workplace assessments like WPSA, which measure healthy and unhealthy conflict. Focus groups can help employees believe their employer embraces healthy conflict and accepts that there are more benefits in dealing with healthy and unhealthy conflict than avoiding it.
  • Train employees to regulate unpleasant emotions — Often, employees’ workplace conflict’s biggest challenge is not the conflict as much as the emotional dysregulation creating intrapersonal disruption (e.g., self-esteem challenges) and interpersonal challenges at home. Individuals who can increase their capacity to regulate their emotions under pressure can better deal with conflict. Employees must be motivated and possess the required emotional skills to deal with conflict successfully. Developing emotional regulation skills can position individuals to develop psychological flexibility and move towards a shared purpose.
  • Brand conflict as an opportunity to encourage conflict resolution — Whether a conflict is healthy or unhealthy, there is an opportunity for learning and growth. Employers encouraging leaders to talk about and deal with conflict psychologically safely allows all parties involved to be heard. For employees and leaders to deal with conflict instead of avoid it, they must accept that if something is valuable enough to be a conflict, it must also be worthwhile to resolve it. Employers should educate employees about the cost of conflict and the positive benefits of learning to deal with it. Addressing conflict reduces stress, promotes team productivity, strengthens relationships, develops emotional intelligence, increases problem-solving, and enriches communication and collaboration. Employers can encourage and create psychologically safe teams by setting expectations to engage in conflict resolution when required to create collaborative cultures. This requires a workplace culture committed to increasing psychological safety for all employees by promoting that it is safe to challenge opinions, express concerns without fear of retribution, and that disagreements are normal. Leadership can support conflict resolution, role modelling, and team discussion to brand conflict as part of growth, accountability, and learning.

Dr. Bill Howatt is the Ottawa-based president of Howatt HR Consulting.

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