People Matters: Smadar Cohen-Chen

The second blog in our People Matters series features Smadar Cohen-Chen, Associate Professor, Social and Organisational Psychology at the University of Sussex.

What are the main drivers for conflict in the workplace?

“There are several types of conflict which have their own different drivers. Task and process conflict, for example, usually occur when people disagree either about what a goal is or how something should be done.

“Relationship conflict is more concerning, as it relates to what and who people are as opposed to what they are doing. It could stem from something as simple as not replying to emails quickly, the grumble then escalating into being about the person as opposed to the behaviour. This type of conflict can certainly undermine teamwork. Small acts of incivility and insensitivity can cause relationship conflict, too, whether it’s making a joke or snide remark, or even taking stationery that isn’t yours.

“Workplace conflict can also stem from power relations between two people and their responsibility, as well as between management and employees when there are feelings of injustice.”

What are the impacts caused by workplace conflict? 

“Workplace (relationship) conflict can lead to a range of outcomes, virtually all of them being negative. From a functional perspective, conflicts can spur creativity and prevent solutions to problems from being found. But when they stop being about what people do or how to solve a problem and become about who people are then this is almost always dysfunctional.

“At the other end of the scale, conflict caused by incivility and bullying can have a hugely detrimental impact on employee wellbeing and team morale, which we know undermines productivity and performance which impacts organisations’ bottom lines. If there is a sense among employees that management are not on their side or are actively working against them, more serious consequences such as anti-social behaviours can emerge, with staff also more likely to disengage, down tools and take days off sick.”

In your opinion, what’s the best way of managing diverse needs of a workforce?  

“There are two types of strategy to address conflict. The first is resolution, in other words going straight to the core of the problem and hashing it out. Typically, this involves bringing people in to mediate the problem, finding the core and resolving it. The downsides are that it can take a long time and risks aggravating employees further, but the end result, if resolved properly, is that the issues are directly addressed.

“The other approach is to manage as much as possible without solving the deep-rooted issues. Simple actions such as moving conflicting individuals onto separate teams or giving a task to someone else altogether can be a quick and cost-effective solution.

“You might also need to be more nuanced and move from the individuals’ position to interest, a well known and hugely important issue in negotiation and conflict studies – by this I mean not thinking about what they want, but why they want it, and also taking into consideration the other person in the conflict. For instance, the person next to me talks too much and I cannot concentrate. However, they could say they work and think best when talking to the team and bouncing ideas off each other. A solution, therefore, could be to create dedicated periods for social and quiet times or divide the office into different spaces.”

“When the conflict takes place between different teams or departments within a business, it can lead to a feeling that one is going behind the other’s back. Sometimes the establishment of norms and a common culture across the organisation can resolve the problem. In these cases, many conflicts arise as a result of poor communication and simply having rules about how to conduct oneself in various cases can reduce the risk of misunderstandings.”

How do you cultivate a culture that respects differences and encourages a sense of community and belonging?  

“We need to appreciate that we are all unique, and that what is needed to help one individual may be very different to another person.

“Creating a sense of psychological safety is therefore important. By this I mean cultivating a norm where people do not feel the pressure to be perfect in front of their colleagues, and likewise feel comfortable to be different and speak up among peers. The ability to make mistakes, to come up with ideas that may be novel or seem out there, to play around with imagination and solutions – that is psychological safety. And that is critical to a sense of belonging, creativity, risk-taking and more.  

“Organisations need to hold real conversations with their employees and understand their uniqueness, what works for them and how they can be empowered. Once this happens, people will be inclined to speak up (for good and for bad) and that culture will start to embed itself in the organisation.”

Internal communications and employee engagement aimed at keeping a diverse workforce engaged and happy – what’s your secret for success? 

“I love the growth mindset approach by Carol Dweck and her colleagues. This essentially is the idea that nothing is stable, and that everything changes all the time. Individuals, groups, organisations, and (in my research) – conflicts. Organisations need to embrace this and convince their employees that things can change and do change. Because when people believe that things can change, they actually work to make them change. It is a process we have seen across history – those who think that things can change ultimately lead those changes based on that very belief. Positive communication around change will help to achieve this. Communications should also instil a mindset of hope which will enable people to be proactive, social, positive and kind. 

“There are many ways of going about it, too. Workshops, posters and content pushed through all manner of media platforms can help to reinforce these mindsets around growth and change. Brave leaders inspire change in others and give people hope when they communicate.”

Read the first blog in our People Matters series – a Q&A with Andy Grant and Ashleigh Cresswell of Elior.

Sabrina Stubbs