The conflict condundrum

Conflict can be healthy or detrimental to organisational culture, depending on how it is managed.

Conflict is a cornerstone in healthy, successful organisations. It is necessary for effective problem solving and for building useful interpersonal relationships between managers and employees. But very few companies manage to get the balance right in how they approach conflicts and disagreements. There are cases of managers being overly confrontational when providing feedback, making their subordinates feel reprimanded, and there are those on the other sied of the spectrum who are so uncomfortable in expressing their disapproval that employees take their politeness for weakness. 

Subordinates also feel the pressure to keep silent with their bosses, especially in organisations that place a high value on being polite and avoiding confrontation.

"This desire to remain silent is worsened by tough economic conditions in which many subordinates would not dare disagree with their bosses for fear of losing their jobs. This is the reason that corruption takes root in many companies," says Memory Nguwi, managing consultant of Zimbabwean management and human resources consulting firm Industrial Psychology Consultants.

"The way in which disagreements are addressed speaks to the organisational culture and the values that go with that culture such as respect, humility, and good manners. When people choose to remain silent in order to avoid confrontation, embarrassment and other dangers associated with disagreeing with people, ineffective and harmful practices in the company go unchallenged."

Conflict is usually uncomfortable. Many people don't know how to participate in and manage work conflict in a positive way, but when conflict is improperly addressed, people's feelings can get hurt, causing them to become defensive because they feel personally attacked. 

The best way to approach any conflict is to encourage it via the organisational culture by making sure that every employee knows that they are free to share their views and disagreements as long as it is done in a polite manner. And it is up to managers and senior leadership to drive that culture, for example, by providing employees with training in healthy conflict and problem-solving skills, or rewarding people who are willing to take a stand for their own points of view.