Why can’t they all just get along? Stress-fuelled conflict in the workplace is increasing and ultimately warring staff are the problem of the business

Why can’t they all just get along?

July 3, 2013

Belinda Williams

Stress-fuelled conflict in the workplace is increasing and ultimately warring staff are the problem of the business.

There’s nothing more frustrating for small business owners with massive financial responsibilities than to be dragged into the perceived petty squabbles of feuding staff. But it’s actually that unsympathetic attitude that can prolong the standoff.

A common cause of workplace tiffs is unmanaged stress, psychologist Rebecca Henshall says.The senior consultant with relationships coaching service LifeWorks says a lack of resilience has also contributed to an influx of calls to the counselling service.

“LifeWorks is seeing more evidence of stress-fuelled conflicts in the workplace, as people often manage stress by withdrawing or communicating inappropriately with colleagues (that is, too harshly),” Henshall says.

“People’s inability to bounce back after setbacks and difficulty in remaining optimistic at work is having an impact on workplace relationships and culture.

“This in turn affects productivity and performance . . . LifeWorks has seen a surge of interest from organisations wishing to provide workshops to build resilience in the workplace in the past 12 months,” she says.

Henshall says misunderstandings and poor communication styles are also sources of angst between colleagues.

“Often we hear the saying, ‘Oh that’s just the way Mick talks, you’ll get used to it’, or ‘Geraldine is always like that in the morning, we just avoid her until after lunch’.

“In these situations, ‘bad habits’ of communication have allowed someone to behave in a way that’s unproductive,” she says.

Get your house in order

Lack of role clarity or poor management can lead to staff division, Henshall says.

“When there is a lack of clarity, small issues can be blown out of proportion, e.g. when the owner or manager takes leave, who has designated authority for which aspects of the business in their absence?”

Problematic behaviour that goes unaddressed can lead to low morale and a ‘why bother?’ attitude among staff, Henshall says.

“When there is limited or no performance management or constructive feedback in the workplace, this will affect the whole team, who feel like they ‘carry’ the poor performers,” she says.

“This is a sure way to create conflict between employees in the workplace.”

Blurred lines

You can’t help who you’re drawn to, but it’s generally not a good idea to become mates with a subordinate, Henshall says.

“To be friendly, yes, to be friends – no,” she says.

“The perception of ‘favourites’ is common in the workplace and being ‘friends’ with some employees and not others will often lead to allegations of preferential treatment, which in turn contributes to low morale and increased negative gossip.

“Respect for the role can also be compromised when managers become too friendly with staff, and lead to problems with authority and leadership.

“Perhaps one of the biggest issues is when a manager needs to performance manage an employee who is their friend.

“This often leads to compromise, high emotion, and affects work and personal life for them both,” Henshall says.

The great outdoors

The popularity of team building providers has grown as more organisations look externally for ways to boost workplace morale.

Corporate Challenge director Dwain Richardson says he has delivered more than 1000 events. He says many participants are unaware of colleagues’ strengths and weaknesses.

“Periodically we will notice or be made aware by managers about some unease between staff on the event,” Richardson says.

“The best ice-breaker activities are those that get the individuals working closely in a fun, relaxed environment.”

One of the benefits of team building is to gain a “greater understanding and appreciation for each other”.

He says colleagues are more likely to bond outside of their work environment, where the “hierarchical nature of the workplace is removed”.

“I regularly advise managers to observe these differences, as it’s a valuable way of identifying strengths in your team that are not often seen in the workplace,” Richardson says.

A common tale

Many SMEs are seeking expert HR advice to help manage feuding staff, People Dynamics director Laura Birley says.

“It is one of the biggest areas we deal with,” she says.

“An attitude of ‘if I close my eyes then hopefully it will go away’, or ‘they are just having a bad day’, or worse still, ‘that is just the way such and such is’ can lead to a multitude of bigger problems.

“Unfortunately these issues rarely go away themselves and require management involvement for solutions to be reached.”

People with little HR expertise need to tread carefully when handling staff disputes.

“Businesses often think by tackling HR themselves they are saving money, yet the hidden costs associated with unfair dismissal, unlawful termination, unsatisfactory contracts, policies and procedures and sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination claims, are very real,” Birley says.

“For a small to medium-size business, claims such as these could cripple the company financially, yet they can often be easily avoided.

“Another issue is time. With the nature of small business being ‘all hands on deck’, the responsibility of HR can absorb the time of staff whose day can be better spent elsewhere, taking their focus away from what they should be doing and subsequently affecting productivity.”


People Dynamics’ Laura Birley’s tips for SMEs grappling with workplace gripes:

•     Set expectations: have a robust set of policies and procedures in line with industrial relations and occupational health and safety legislation.

•     Have managers take responsibility for their staff and empower them to handle tough situations; provide training and support.

•     Do not underestimate how much mediation, particularly from a third party, can assist in reaching resolutions. It is important that parties feel they have been given the opportunity to air grievances before moving to a solution. Document all meetings held with staff.

LifeWorks’ Rebecca Henshall’s tips:

•     Act quickly. Resolve issues when they are small before they escalate into something bigger and damaging to the whole organisational culture.

•     Be fair, act neutrally and refrain from expressing blame or judgment.

•     Only make a decision if you are not able to support the staff to come to their own agreement.

•     If your best intentions and processes don’t resolve the feud then seek professional advice

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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