Episode 17 - Rethinking conflict at work

In this podcast Alex Efthymiades, Director and Founder of Consensio, discusses workplace conflict. Alex argues we aren’t taught the skills we need to successfully navigate conflict; therefore, we avoid it because it feels uncomfortable.

Consensio Partners

Consensio is one of the UK’s leading providers of conflict management and workplace mediation services. We believe that conflict is best resolved through dialogue. View our resources below:

In this podcast Alex Efthymiades, Director and Founder of Consensio, discusses workplace conflict. Alex argues we aren’t taught the skills we need to successfully navigate conflict; therefore, we avoid it because it feels uncomfortable. However, Alex believes conflict can be positive, enabling us to clear the air and become more productive. She says it’s important to create a workplace environment where healthy conflict can flourish. This can be done by establishing psychological safety where everyone feels able to speak up without being punished. This is particularly important in the boardroom, where constructive challenge is needed to avoid groupthink.


RJ: Today I'm speaking to Alex Efthymiades, an organisational conflict resolution specialist who is the Director and Founder of Consensio. We're going to be talking about conflict in the workplace and how it can affect an organisation. It's great to be speaking to you today, Alex. Perhaps you could start by telling us a bit about your background and what your work as an organisational conflict resolution specialist involves.

AE: Great, absolutely. Nice to be speaking with you, Rachael. So, my background is in organisational psychology. My business partner Anna Shields and I set up Consensio 15 years ago. We work either as workplace mediators, or conflict coaches, or trainers, to equip people to manage conflict better. Because conflict is so costly, both in terms of financial costs and human costs, to organisations. And we want to minimise that.

RJ: Absolutely. You talked a little bit about the different types of support that you offer. Could you tell us a little bit more about the conflict support that you offer?

AE: Yes. We usually get called in because there's been some kind of relationship breakdown within an organisation. [It could be at] board level, really at any level within an organisation: very senior to very junior members of staff have in some way fallen out. When we get called in, as workplace mediation specialists, we are there as impartial experts who are trying to facilitate a conversation between two or more people who are no longer able to speak with each other.

Our hope is that an organisation will call us before any kind of formal process has been instigated. That doesn't always happen. Sometimes we get called in post-grievance, or post-disciplinary, but obviously, the earlier you catch conflict, the better.

We also work as conflict coaches. This is a one-to-one intervention with people who are having a really challenging time dealing with some kind of conflict at work. That might be a communication or a relationship breakdown, and they need some guidance and some support as to how they can better speak to the person, or deal with a person that they're having a conflict with, or the people.

We also offer a lot of training. We are part of many organisations’ management development training courses or training programmes. We cover all areas relating to informal and collaborative conflict resolution. For example, trying to equip managers to deal with conflict within their teams, so that they don't need to involve Human Resources (HR), or it doesn't need to get to the board, because issues are being dealt with at that local level. Informally and quickly those conflict conversations are happening; they're normalised. They're part of a manager's toolkit and part of their management responsibility as well.

RJ: That's interesting because I think sometimes it's those kinds of skills that can really help a manager to be effective in their role.

AE: Exactly. I think what happens in terms of managers [is that] they want to be good at their jobs; they want to be effective in their roles. But I think a lot of organisations have a real blind spot when it comes to training their managers. If there are management development programmes and obviously not every organisation will have them. Often even if they have them, they don't cover things like, how to have a difficult conversation [or] how to give difficult feedback and upskill managers on having those really challenging conflict conversations that if not addressed, will fester and grow into something that can cause huge reputational damage to an organisation.

RJ: Yeah, absolutely. How would you define conflict, perhaps so that managers and people in those situations can recognise that that's what's happening and seek help?

AE: I guess conflict can arise whenever people have different values, needs, opinions or interests. It can be something very small such as one employee wants to take leave when another employee wants to take leave and suddenly it becomes this big issue around who gets the priority around that. It can be a huge headache for a manager. It can also be an email that was sent in haste that was perhaps not written very delicately, and it lands on the person as something rude or undermining.

It can be someone feeling continuously undervalued and disrespected by perhaps someone who manages them. Then they might start reading bullying behaviours into those interactions. We deal with a lot of bullying allegations, for example, or allegations of any kind of harassment or discrimination.

It can be the small things to the big things. Often it gets to the big things because it wasn't addressed when it was still a small thing.

I think what's so powerful about what we do [stems from the fact that] we don't think conflict is a bad thing. We think that conflict can be a really powerful force for greater understanding between people, for better understanding about ourselves and what it is that we really need. It can open lines of communication and understanding and build stronger relationships across the organisation, and lead to innovation, and growth, and creative problem solving.

Conflict is inevitable. It's normal. It happens in all relationships. When we are able to have those uncomfortable, because they're not comfortable conversations, but uncomfortable conversations, that's where the growth happens. That's where the change and the innovation happens. That's what moves us forward in a really healthy way.

RJ: If we're finding that we're not able to have those difficult conversations and address conflict, how can conflict affect an organisation?

AE: Conflict then becomes incredibly destructive. Firstly, and there's quite a lot of research on this, organisations spend millions of pounds each year dealing with workplace conflict when it's become destructive. That's through, for example, employment tribunals, or legal assistance. Obviously, also, there's the reputational damage to the organisation that I mentioned before.

Often, we get called in out of desperation because people don't know where to go anymore. I think it's really about [asking the question,] ‘what are we doing right now to help people throughout the organisation have these conversations?’ So that three years down the line, we don't find ourselves in a position where we're spending hundreds of thousands of pounds dealing with issues that could have been addressed very well and very easily through, for example, training and skills building. Once you have the skills, you then have the confidence to have these conversations.

In terms of the costs, obviously, there's the employment tribunal costs, the legal costs, the reputational damage to the organisation. But there are other costs as well and some of them aren't so obvious. There's the impact on the team when there's conflict because it impacts more than just the people involved. It's the sickness absence; it's the stress levels. It's the people who resign from the organisation because they're leaving a conflict that isn't being managed.

Then it's the personal cost to people in terms of their wellbeing, their mental health. So many of our clients say to us; I can't sleep anymore. I'm carrying this home with me every day. It's having such a negative impact on my wellbeing and my mental health. I feel depressed; I feel anxious all the time. That's because of something that isn't being resolved at work.

RJ: That certainly sounds like conflict can be very powerful. Why is it that it can become so destructive?

AE: We should be taught from a very young age to have difficult conversations with other people, even if they're uncomfortable, and we're not. From a very young age, as children, we see how our parents or our families are modelling conflict behaviours, and those are often not very positive. Then at school, we're also taught not to speak back to teachers, not to fight in the playground. I think that we're teaching kids the wrong message and then it becomes punitive. If someone misbehaves at school, for example, we don't try to find out – why is that child misbehaving? – we punish them. We give them time out, and obviously a lot of parents do that as well.

From an early age, we're not learning the skills [we need to manage conflict well]. The skills that we should be teaching our kids and that we should be teaching our employees and our leaders at work are: how do you have those uncomfortable conversations? What are the benefits of not avoiding these conversations? So many organisations have an avoidance culture [when it comes to] conflict.

So, it starts early on, but it's perpetuated in the workplace. I think part of [the reason for] that is people don't feel they have the skills and they don't have the confidence. Very often, leaders are promoted based on their technical ability and not necessarily their people skills. Obviously, there are amazing managers and leaders out there. But I think that often we're expecting a lot from people who haven't been properly equipped to deal with those difficult conversations.

RJ: Yes, it's true, because those kinds of interpersonal relationships are a skillset in themselves, separate from your technical ability in your particular field. Speaking of interpersonal conflict, what risks can those kinds of conflicts pose to organisations?

AE: The reputation of the organisation can be damaged and we see that with some of our clients. It does pose a business risk. People leaving: some of our clients have very high turnover, for example. Obviously, the impact on [staff retention], on cost, on stress levels as well.

The higher up within an organisation you go, for example at board level, you want people to be able to have these difficult conversations because they will drive business success. Those conflict conversations are actually important for business success. If people aren't able to speak about difficult issues, if people aren't able to question and challenge each other respectfully high up in the organisation, that will stifle innovation and growth. I think the skills you need to have conflict conversations are the same skills you need to have just good conversations at work.

RJ: We've talked a little bit about how conflict affects workplace relationships. Does it also affect the ability to collaborate?

AE: Absolutely, and I think that's really important. You want people in organisations to collaborate with each other. However, there's some really great research from Dr Peter Coleman at Columbia University. He studies high-functioning teams, and he says that, yes, high-functioning teams need collaboration and cooperation, that's really important. That's partly why they're high functioning.

But they also need a degree of conflict. Because if you only have collaboration and cooperation, but no conflict, it leads to groupthink, and inertia, and sub-optimisation – those are the terms he uses. This is so true and we see it in our work as well. You want people to disagree with each other. You want people to challenge; you want people to feel they have a voice, and that's across the organisation.

It's that balance between having collaboration and cooperation, but also allowing people to have difficult conversations with each other, not to repress those, not to avoid those. That's how you create a high-functioning team.

RJ: I think that's really interesting because I think our audience perhaps will be familiar with ideas of groupthink and constructive collaboration and constructive challenge. Groupthink, we would try to avoid in the boardroom amongst directors, precisely because, like you said, people should feel comfortable to challenge each other so that you get the best possible decision making. So that's certainly something that I think our audience will be familiar with. Why do you think instances of workplace conflict are so high then?

AE: Going back to what Peter Coleman at Columbia University says, and what we're seeing in our work as well, you need to create an environment where healthy conflict can flourish. I think that most of us don't know how to do that.

Looking at board level, for example, and tying it into the research, and [looking at it] from a practitioner’s perspective, what we see is that, for example, there needs to be psychological safety. What does that mean? It's a term coined by Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson. Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.

If you look at a board, for example, you can think about – does the board have a culture where people are able to speak up? Are people really speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes? Or is that looked down upon? The same [questions can be applied to] other teams. I think we really need to think about [asking], ‘are we creating that environment of psychological safety where voice and challenge are not just allowed but actively encouraged?’

So that is one way [to create an environment where healthy conflict can flourish]. You can also model or create psychological safety by acknowledging your own fallibility, for example. As a board member, for example, you might say, ‘look, I may miss something that I need to hear from you.’ Or, ‘if you don't agree with me, please tell me.’ Those kinds of things are really important.

Also, one needs to be aware of [the answer to the question,] what is my conflict mindset? Do I actually see conflict and disagreement as something potentially healthy? Or do I see it as really negative and threatening? And [because of that] I don't want to deal with any difficult conversations, because it's made me really uncomfortable, and I don't want to feel uncomfortable at work, or anywhere else.

RJ: I wonder if that's something that is quite common. I think because of what you said about us not having been given the skills to address conflict, we probably do feel quite uncomfortable with the idea of it. Do you think that and some of the [other] things that we've talked about, do you think they might be reasons why organisations aren't dealing with workplace conflict more strategically? Or are there other reasons as well?

AE: I think that is one of the big reasons and I think that [conflict] does need to be looked at strategically. I think that in busy organisations with so much time pressure and other pressures – bottom line etc – we forget to think about the human relationships, and how those relationships are inhibiting or driving performance. Inhibiting or driving people's wellbeing. The human element I think needs to be looked at more carefully.

I also think we need to be more strategic about these conversations. We also need to be more proactive. I think a lot of organisations are still dealing with conflict reactively. They wait until someone writes a letter to the board to complain about someone else or someone's behaviour, as opposed to looking at [and asking], ‘do our policies reflect how we want people to be with each other? Does our culture reflect [the fact] that we do want people to challenge each other respectfully.’

RJ: Do you think conflict should be on the board agenda because of the risks it can pose to an organisation?

AE: Absolutely. It's been really heartening to see that some of our clients are really taking this seriously because they see the damage that unresolved conflict can pose. It is something that's being taken seriously by the board as well, really looking at [the question of,] ‘how can we change things? So that conflict, which can be something so positive, can be experienced in a constructive way in our organisation. How can we make sure that happens?’

RJ: Which board positions do you find tend to take ownership for that particular discussion? Is it HR?

AE: Very often it’s HR. I would say the first people who usually hear about a conflict are the managers. But often, when managers don't know what to do, they feel more comfortable simply handing the case over to HR. So, HR have a really valuable role to play at board level as well, of bringing [their] knowledge about this [to] the strategic vision at board level and really working with other board members to make this happen.

RJ: If there was a board that didn't have HR sitting at the boardroom table, perhaps our audience of company secretaries who would be at the boardroom meetings, perhaps they could act as a go-between, do you think, between the HR department [and the board]?

AE: Absolutely, and we've seen that happen successfully as well.

RJ: Thinking about conflict in the boardroom, specifically, how do you think our audience of governance professionals and company secretaries could work with the board chair to resolve any conflict that's happening between board members themselves?

AE: I would say – and I’m thinking of one board in particular we’ve recently worked with ¬– I think what's important is to realise that you don't have to solve someone else's problem. If you're sitting on the board [and] you see that two or more of your colleague board members aren't agreeing on things, aren't being collaborative with each other, are stalling decisions, it's about meeting with them individually and finding out what is going on, what is underneath the conflict.

To give some examples from our work, and from this board in particular, it was things like board members didn't trust each other. They didn't feel their input was being valued. They didn't feel they were respected by others on the board. There was a lack of psychological safety and trust had broken down.

In a sense, you resolve that by addressing those issues. So why has the trust broken down? Why are they not feeling respected? Why do they feel their opinions are not being valued? In a sense, you go backwards, you try to find out what's going on. Maybe you need to bring in a mediator or someone impartial to facilitate a conversation.

I think the focus needs to be on facilitating a dialogue. Not going straight to [saying], ‘let's resolve this,’ or telling people, ‘you just need to work together for the sake of the board,’ but trying to find out what's going on here. Because this lack of trust, if not addressed, will carry on and will become more of a hindrance as time progresses.

RJ: In the current climate with the current economic uncertainty, there's a lot of pressure on organisations to cut costs. Why do you think informal conflict resolution should be a priority? And how can organisations make a business case for this?

AE: I really believe that informal and collaborative conflict resolution needs to be a priority, regardless of the economic environment. I think there's a really strong business case to say that right now, with a cost of living crisis in the UK, for example, and on a more global level, with so much uncertainty, continuing uncertainty, companies having to cut costs, that this is a really important moment for us to invest in our people.

This is a really important moment for us to think about the costs, in terms of legal fees, we're [incurring] because of unresolved conflict. Employment tribunals, reputational damage: we can't afford this. It's never something you want to be able to afford anyway. But it's even more crucial in a downturn.

You have a lot of good reasons to say, ‘I can make a business case for this.’ You might have to invest now, to make sure your board has, for example, the right tools to communicate with each other constructively, to learn how to shift their conflict mindset and embrace those conversations. Or you might have to invest in a management development programme for your managers and leaders. But the financial investment you're making now is going to lead to huge savings in the future.

RJ: Yes, and I think we also have a better understanding of the benefits of employee wellbeing coming out of the pandemic, when we came to understand how important our employees are to the success of the business. You mentioned earlier about workplace conflict being also a good thing. Could you tell us a little bit more about how and why that could be the case?

AE: When we start working with clients, we do exploratory work with them around [asking], ‘how do you view conflict? What is your conflict mindset?’ Because people often don't understand that they already have a very strong concept of conflict being negative. They'll say things like, ‘it makes me feel anxious and angry, and defensive, and misunderstood, and frustrated, and stressed. They then understand, ‘oh, okay, so that's why I'm avoiding the conversations,’ because conflict can be something very emotional for people. We are emotional beings, and we don't want to feel all of those stressful, negative emotions.

When we say to them, ‘okay, so what about some of the good things that can come out of conflict?’ They'll say, ‘it clears the air. Having a conflict conversation with someone that goes well, it clears the air.’

It also makes us understand each other better. When we understand colleagues better, we work with them better. That leads to stronger relationships, it leads to better communication. It leads to people being able to share ideas with each other safely, without the fear of sounding stupid or out of touch. That leads to creativity and growth within an organisation, and learning, and diverse viewpoints. And we want diverse viewpoints in the workplace, and at the board level. We don't want the groupthink that otherwise ensues.

Conflict can also be about change, and resolution, and energy. It will happen, it's normal and inevitable, like I said at the beginning. Conflict is a state. Then we can, depending on how we address it, we change the state of conflict.

But I think that most of us, because of our fear of conflict, don't even want to touch it, don't want to have conversations, and therefore often rely on HR, for example, to resolve issues for us. That usually leads to, not always but very often, to formal process and potentially legal claims.

I think that sometimes maybe boards have a hard time asking for help, because – this isn't just at board level, we see it a lot – conflict also brings shame. People think, I don't want to ask for help, because that makes me sound like a failure. That's very shaming, when actually we can all use some help when it comes to conflict.

RJ: With that in mind, what are the three most important things that you would say to senior leaders about conflict?

AE: I think one of them is that we need to shift our conflict mindset. We need to see conflict as something that's potentially really positive, that's constructive, that can bring change and innovation and better relationships. So that's the first thing.

I also think that senior leaders need help with conflict. These skills do not come easily and they are not natural to most people. Equipping [senior leaders] with the skills and the confidence to have these difficult conversations at work is really important. Don’t just assume, well we've promoted someone, [we don’t need to do anything else]. Just because someone sits on the board [or is a manager] doesn't mean they will have these skills. I think that's another takeaway: the importance of learning and training in the area.

The last one is just remembering the importance of relationships and that they will drive results. Performance is important, but how do we harness that? I think that, and you spoke about this earlier Rachael, around employee wellbeing, we also need to think about [the question of], how are people doing? How is their wellbeing? Because if their wellbeing is strong, they will perform better, they will enjoy their work, they will want to stay at your organisation, and all of that will help drive results.

RJ: Absolutely. Thank you so much, Alex, for your time today. It's been such an interesting conversation about conflict and how we view it. How we've not been given the skills really to think about it positively or to manage it, and how we can change that by changing our mindset around conflict, creating that psychological safety that you talked about. And how sometimes conflict can actually be a good thing. Like you said, avoiding groupthink, introducing more diverse viewpoints to make better decisions and be more inclusive. Thank you for your time today; it's been really interesting.

AE: Thank you, Rachael.

Rethinking conflict at work

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