How could coaching help executives handle workplace conflict? Sarah Hughes and Claudia Filsinger-Mohun discuss relevant literature and the findings of Sarah’s recent action research study
Workplace conflict is common and can have substantial negative effects, both for individuals and organisations (Dijkstra et al, 2012).
High levels of relationship conflict are associated with lower morale, lower productivity and higher staff turnover, all of which have an impact on organisational profitability.
Jehn (1997) identified three categories of conflict:
- Task conflict (what should be done)
- Process conflict (how to do it)
- Relationship conflict (personality clash)
Some argue that a moderate level of task conflict can be beneficial because it provokes debate and promotes better decisions, however there’s a consensus that relationship and process conflict produce negative outcomes (De Wit et al, 2012).
It is hard to ascertain how much time executives spend on conflict. One unpublished report found that executives in Canada spend an average of three hours of work time plus four and half hours worrying about workplace conflict every week (LeBlanc, 2010).
Moreover, changes to modern working practices have increased the potential for conflict. Working remotely from home or while travelling is increasingly common and leads to more online communication, which can trigger conflict (van Oort & Meester, 2012).
To avoid the negative consequences of conflict, some organisations seek external support. Much has been written about mediation for workplace conflict, however, in around 50% of mediation cases only one disputant is present (Tidwell, 1997).
Little has been written about how coaching helps executives handle conflict and yet, in executive coaching sessions, workplace conflict frequently arises.
Hughes’s (2018) study explored how a three-step coaching model helped executives handle workplace conflict. The research participants were executives from global technology and financial services firms who were experiencing workplace conflict.
The findings are summarised in the following.
Workplace conflict findings
Definitions of conflict are numerous and sometimes contradictory(Tidwell, 1997). Hughes (2018) defined conflict as: A state experienced by one or more individuals as dissonance between them. It may be expressed verbally, non-verbally or experienced internally. It may involve 1) negative perceptions, feelings or assumptions about the other(s) and 2) past, imagined or anticipated threats to status.
Although the causes of conflict were not the primary focus of Hughes’ study, organisational restructuring and use of emails were often-cited triggers (2018). During organisational restructuring, executives experienced uncertainty about their job role and feared encroachment on their ‘territory’.
A perceived threat to status proved the most potent cause of conflict. As one participant put it, “You go all primeval, don’t you.”
Executives reacted to apparently critical comments in emails which had been copied to senior colleagues.
“He replied to all with his objections – and I felt obliged to defend myself in a response email.”
To reduce the potential for conflict, executives should talk rather than email, whenever possible.
Good management was essential to diffuse conflict. From this we inferred that conflict coaching had particular value at management level, although conflict-handling skills may benefit people at all career stages.
Three steps to handling conflict
Several insights emerged from a review of relevant literature. To handle conflict well, executives needed to develop:
1) Self-awareness, including an appreciation that their perspective is subjective
2) Other-awareness: empathy, the ability to consider other perspectives
3) Conflict communication skills
These formed the three steps of Hughes’s coaching model (2018). Their benefits were developed and evaluated during the action research cycles and thematic analysis.
Step 1: Self-awareness
Increasing self-awareness was important. Coaching allowed executives to notice how their own attitudes and behaviour had fuelled conflict: “In telling the story, your own role becomes more apparent to you.”
Step 2: Other-awareness
Coaching helped executives appreciate other disputants’ perspectives and strengths. Two participants realised that the other disputant had worked harder to build the relationship than they had, which increased their respect. Noticing how the conflict impacted the wider team strengthened executives’ intentions to resolve it, which led to the third step.
Step 3: Communication skills
The temptation to avoid difficult relationships was noticeable. However, avoidance prolonged conflict, making it imperative to act quickly when potential conflict was identified.
Coaching helped the executives notice avoidance and find practical ways to re-engage with the other disputant, for example by seeking opportunities to collaborate and by adopting positive, respectful language.
Coaching gave executives space to prepare for a constructive conversation with their co-disputant to explore how they could work together most successfully in future.
However daunting it may seem to approach conflict, the good news is that conflict-handling skills can be learned. Given conflict’s negative impacts on individual wellbeing and organisational productivity, Hughes’s three-step coaching model offers a new way to develop conflict-handling skills for today’s working environment (2018).
- Sarah Hughes is an executive coach at Insphere Coaching and associate lecturer at Oxford Brookes Business School
Claudia Filsinger-Mohun is a lecturer at Oxford Brookes Business School
- F de Wit, K Jehn & L Greer, ‘The paradox of intragroup conflict: A meta-analysis’, in Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(2), pp360-390, 2012
- M Dijkstra, B Beersma & R Cornelissen, ‘The emergence of the Activity Reduces Conflict Associated Strain (ARCAS) model: A test of a conditional mediation model of workplace conflict and employee strain’, in Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 17(3), pp365-375, 2012
- S Hughes, How could coaching help executives handle workplace conflict? An action research study. Unpublished MA dissertation, Oxford Brookes University, 2018
- K Jehn, ‘A qualitative analysis of conflict types and dimensions in organizational groups’, in Administrative Science Quarterly, 42(3), pp530-557, 1997
- D LeBlanc, Conflict Environment Scan (unpublished manuscript). Healthy Workplace Department, Capital District Health Authority, Halifax: Canada, 2010
- J van Oort and M Meester, The new way of working: Designed to cause conflicts?, Paper presented at the 25th Annual International Association of Conflict Management Conference, Spier, South Africa, 12-14 July, 2012
- A Tidwell, ‘Problem solving for one’, in Mediation Quarterly, 14(4), pp309-317, 1997