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Trouble brewing: Spotting the signs of developing conflict

Conflict at work can take many forms. Two workers may not get on, trust and cooperation can be lacking between employees and management, or there may be excessive rivalry between teams. Conflict can lead to strikes or employment tribunal claims and result in resources being spent on discipline and grievance cases. It can also reduce team morale, damage productivity and cause psychological stress to the people involved. Which is why it's important to intervene as soon as possible.

So what are the signs of conflict? Some will be very visible: a heated exchange that occurs between colleagues, or a meeting between management and employee representatives that turns into a standoff. But not all forms of conflict are so obvious. In fact, some people may initially hide their feelings, or attempt to avoid conflict, even as tension increases. If conflict is not managed at an early stage, it can lead to polarisation of positions, attempts to seek allies and ultimately deadlock as blame is apportioned, positions become entrenched and communication ceases.

Before open conflict breaks out, there can be a fall in motivation, reduced productivity as people are not cooperating as well, more sickness absences, as unhappiness leads to stress and depression, and changes in behaviour as office banter develops into seriously aimed derogatory remarks and socialising with colleagues grinds to a halt.

Some managers will find it easier than others to pick up the signs of conflict. As a manager you are more likely to be able to interpret the behaviour of your employees if you have regular channels for open communication and consultation. By listening to the views of your employees at an early stage, you can gauge future reaction to proposed changes. Employee feedback forms or questionnaires may also help you to put in place preventative measures for preventing future conflict arising.

Acas provides comprehensive advice in the Advisory booklet - Managing conflict at work, and has published a guide - pdf icon Mediation: An approach to resolving workplace issues [1Mb].

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