Workplace Conflict: Statistics That Reveal Its Cost

 

Conflict. It’s something that many people spend their lives trying to avoid. Some even say they want to run from it. It activates the fight/flight/freeze part of their brain.

However, conflict is unavoidable and all around us. Rather than futilely attempting to avoid conflict, we need to understand it and look at it from a different perspective. Consider the truth in these statements:

There are positive and negative types of conflict.

Some conflict can lead to new ideas and innovation.

It’s possible to learn how to effectively manage conflict with training.

The first step we can take to better understand conflict is to explore why and when conflict occurs in the workplace. We can do this by reviewing research that reveals workplace conflict statistics. Once you know why and when workplace conflict occurs, its effects, and other vital information, you can learn how to help your teams go through it and find the rewards beyond it.

Conflict Primer: What Is Conflict?

There have been multiple studies over the years that have provided varying definitions of conflict.

For example, a 2008 international study by CPP Global (the publisher of the Myers-Briggs Assessment) defined conflict as “any workplace disagreement that disrupts the flow of work.” This definition emphasizes that conflict reduces productivity.

In contrast, a 2008 Psychometrics study conducted in Canadian workplaces defined conflict as “a struggle that results when one individual’s concerns are different from another person’s.” Here, conflict might not always disrupt work; it might be an opportunity to respect each party’s perspective and search for various win-win resolutions.

In reality, workplace conflict includes all of those elements and is sometimes difficult to view objectively, partly because different team members have different perspectives on every interaction. For example, what seems like an intense confrontation to person A might be seen as “venting” by person B, who didn’t think it was personal.

By any definition, negative examples of conflict in the workplace include:

  • A single disagreement or argument
  • Chronic difficult relationships
  • Clashes of personality
  • Verbal abuse
  • Harassment
  • Bullying
  • Unethical or unfair behavior that disrupts the work of an individual, team, or company

But notice that healthy, positive conflict can include:

  • Competition that motivates people to work harder toward goals
  • Struggling to choose between different strategies
  • Figuring out which team members should take which tasks
  • Pitting opinions against each other to brainstorm new approaches

Who Should Care About Workplace Conflict Statistics?

Conflict occurs in every industry and within every size of organization. That’s a given. But the CPP study found something encouraging: training and development in areas that support effective conflict management led directly to positive conflict resolution.

For example, Brazil and the US enjoy both the most conflict management education and the greatest numbers of positive results of conflict. In contrast, the worst conflict resolution rates were in countries with low levels of conflict management training.

With education, such as training in differing personality types, anyone can improve their abilities to manage conflict. Therefore, gaining a better understanding of this information is important to leaders, managers, HR professionals, executives, and individual contributors.

Questions and Statistics About Workplace Conflict

How Common Is Workplace Conflict?

CPP found that 85% of both individual contributors and leaders agreed they experienced some amount of inevitable conflict at work. In addition, 29% of all employees said that they experienced almost constant conflict. Tellingly, 12% said they also saw conflict frequently among leaders.

In the UK in 2020, 26% of individual contributors said conflict was common, as did 20% of leaders. During the previous year, more than a third had dealt with interpersonal conflict, from single incidents to consistent problem relationships. Bullying was experienced by 15% and harassment by 8%.

What Causes Conflict at Work?

Contributors to the CPP study identified common causes of conflict. The following list shows what percentage of contributors named these factors as a source of conflict.

  • 49%: Clashes between personalities or egos
  • 34%: Workplace stress
  • 33%: Too much work without enough support
  • 29%: Poor leadership
  • 26%: Dishonesty or not enough openness
  • 23%: Problems with line managers
  • 22%: Unclear roles
  • 21%: Confusion about accountability
  • 18%: Clashing values
  • 16%: Poor team composition
  • 15%: Forbidden topics, such as inappropriate relationships
  • 14%: Problems with performance management
  • 13%: Harassment or bullying
  • 10%: The perception of discriminatory practices

Where and When Do Workplace Conflicts Arise?

Although 29% of employees reported that they dealt with continual conflict, CPP also found specific circumstances where conflict is more likely to occur. Respondents identified the following workplace occasions as the main sources of conflict:

  • 34%: Conflicts between frontline or entry-level employees (who may have not yet learned to manage conflicts)
  • 24%: Clashes between line managers and their team members
  • 6%: Disputes between leaders

The number of conflicts between leaders may be higher than reported, because they could occur in private. In any case, leader disagreements can have large effects on the culture of the whole organization.

Are There Positive Consequences of Addressing Conflict in the Workplace?

The second and third most-cited reasons for conflict as reported in the CPP study are stress and high workloads. These factors are very common in any developed economy—meaning that conflict is inevitable and must be managed rather than avoided. It is important to note that 76% of all workers who participated in the CPP study reported conflict leading to positive results, such as improved approaches to problems, deeper insights about colleagues, and innovation. If conflict had been avoided in those situations, those positive results would not have materialized.

The research shows that the key to effectively managing conflict is through developing the skills and mindset. This training seems to lead directly to achieving positive outcomes from conflict situations. CPP reports these statistics about workplace conflict management training:

  • 57% of employees in the US had some conflict training.
  • 95% of those with training reported it helped them find positive conflict resolutions.
  • 58% of individual contributors with training looked for win-win solutions to real conflicts.
  • 85% of workers report being able to experience conflict without being offended because of their training.
  • 27% were more confident and comfortable with disputes after training.

When teammates understand conflict and know how to turn it into innovation and new solutions and approaches, teams can enjoy the positive results of conflict. For example, conflict can simply mean that people disagreed at first but then found new hybrid approaches and insights.

Conflict management training, then, is an investment in the present and future strength of your organization. It allows team members to learn how to use conflict to power creativity. Training can also help them understand themselves, each other, and how to enjoy high-quality relationships.

What Is the Cost of Workplace Conflict?

A 2020 CIPD study of UK employees for HR professionals found that the consequences of conflict in the workplace included lowered productivity and performance, lost time, increased stress, and a decrease in the ability of workers to reach organizational goals.

In addition, CPP’s 2008 study found that surveyed employees in nine countries averaged a little over two hours every week dealing with conflict. Based on an average 2008 salary, that time translated to about $359 billion—or 385 million days of work—going toward conflict.

Do you think your individual contributors are dealing with conflict as much today as they did in 2008? Maybe they are dealing with even more. Each workplace and team is different, but the 2020 CIPD study found that 26% of UK employees still said conflict was a “common occurrence.” And 24% of those workers thought that issues relating to harassment and bullying were not being resolved well in their organizations.

Beyond the financial impact, the following percentages of CPP respondents stated that mishandled conflicts led to these main occurrences:

  • 27%: Personal attacks and insults
  • 25%: Absence and sick days
  • 18%: Conflict between departments
  • 18%: Bullying
  • 18%: Employees resigning
  • 16%: Colleagues being fired
  • 13%: Team members being moved between departments
  • 9%: The failure of projects

If we can assume that a negative workplace culture and negative politics cause conflicts, then these findings from a 2018 survey by Randstad US are also highly relevant:

  • 58% of workers surveyed have quit a job—or are considering it—because of disruptive workplace politics
  • 38% want to quit because of poor workplace culture or a feeling that they don’t fit in
  • 86% of job seekers avoid applying to organizations that have been reviewed poorly by their workforce

In addition to those workplace conflict statistics, a 2012 study conducted at Columbia University found that the average turnover rate of 48.4% at companies with negative cultures dropped to 13.9% at companies with healthy cultures. Turnover can have serious monetary consequences, as it can cost 400% of the salary of a skilled contributor or leader to replace them.

Discrimination disputes are another type of workplace-related conflict that often plays out in US courts. In 2019, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported that 72,675 discrimination charges were brought against employers that year. These can cost companies damage payments and court time.

How Do People Commonly Handle Conflicts With Coworkers?

The following percentages of CPP contributors reported on how they most often dealt with their recent conflicts:

  • 89%: Let conflicts escalate
  • 67%: Took extra measures to avoid a colleague with whom they had disagreed
  • 29%: Took several days to resolve the conflict
  • 24%: Avoided social events with colleagues
  • 16%: Had still not resolved a conflict, which may have gotten worse over time
  • 12%: Quit their job
  • 10%: Avoided going to meetings
  • 9%: Avoided coming to work for multiple days

These workplace conflict statistics show that many individual contributors will disrupt their work and the work of their teams to avoid conflict. Their conflicts can linger painfully, leading to resentment, absenteeism, and even termination.

Another typical way people deal with conflict is to report it to a leader or HR professional. However, only 44% of contributors in the UK reported that a conflict or relationship improved after reporting it.

Even more concerning, CPP found that 31% of managers believed they were good at resolving disagreements, whereas only 22% of individual contributors agreed. And 43% of contributors stated that managers should be better at resolving conflicts, whereas only 23% of managers agreed.

Interestingly, 85% of respondents stated that their view of workplace conflicts evolved during their careers. Through repeated experiences and training, they learned to be less offended by conflict and to take positive actions to resolve it.

How to Use Workplace Conflict Statistics to Motivate the Desire for Training

Can leaders create better workplace environments for their team members? The statistics above lead to the conclusion that training in skills such as recognizing personality types, improving relationships, and managing conflicts could create a much better workplace culture. And that could drastically reduce turnover rates and improve job satisfaction.

CPP found what employees think leaders should do to reduce and resolve conflicts. Employees’ top suggestions for leaders included:

  • 54%: Find and resolve tensions before they lead to negative conflicts.
  • 42%: Increase informal dialogue with team members.
  • 40%: Help mediate conflicts.
  • 40%: Better explain acceptable behavior at their organization.
  • 39%: Model acceptable behavior.
  • 35%: Clarify responsibilities.
  • 33%: Stop employees who cause negative conflicts.
  • 31%: Make counseling available for employees who struggle with conflict.
  • 29%: Keep their own egos in check.
  • 25%: Get better at advising team members in everyday management.
  • 25%: Explain that conflict is a normal part of work that can be managed.
  • 25%: Help employees with work-life balance. 6%: Do nothing.

At the same time, 62% of respondents stated that everyone in an organization should help to manage or resolve conflicts. Only 27% thought that managers were mostly responsible for this.

All of the workplace conflict statistics presented here send us a clear message: your team members would like leaders to directly help them manage conflicts and want training in conflict resolution and relationship skills.

As previously stated, some amount of conflict is inevitable. Therefore, you should create a multi-step plan and process to stop destructive conflict and to encourage positive conflict. Here are three areas you can start with.

Step 1: Communication

Communicate new policies about conflict and model good behavior. Prohibit all forms of harassment, bad treatment based on differences, and disrespect toward anyone. Discuss negative stereotypes and hurtful ways of talking about minority groups, along with better ways of talking and acting. Immediately address any small movements toward intolerance. Bring your policies to life in your culture through modeling and education.

Step 2: Leadership Training

Managers and leaders should go through high-quality training in proven methods of managing conflict. CIPD found that 82% of respondents agreed that with training, “line managers help their team to build healthy relationships,” but that statistic dropped to 56% when managers had not received training.

Set up processes to make team members confident they can go to a leader for effective mediation or coaching. You could even have an anonymous method, if necessary, like a phone-in line run by an outside provider.

Step 3: Team Member Training

CPP found that after receiving conflict management training, 95% of contributors stated that it helped them with future conflicts, 85% that they took action during conflict instead of taking it personally, and nearly 60% looked for win-win resolutions in conflicts.

Even basic training can offer valuable insights. One option is as uncomplicated as the five-step process we explained in a previous blog post:

  1. Acknowledge the conflict.
  2. Find common ground between the conflicting parties.
  3. Understand every side of the problem.
  4. Work on solving the problem, not the person.
  5. Create a plan to move forward.

Research confirms that conflict most often occurs between new team members and between contributors and managers. Therefore, immediate training should be given to new hires, along with your veteran colleagues who haven’t yet had training.

Once your team members know how to identify conflict and take positive action to resolve it, it will eventually reduce their fear and resistance to addressing it. They will quickly report negative conflict or take care of it themselves.

CMOE Conflict Training

Use the statistics provided above, along with CMOE training on conflict and collaboration, to start building your own conflict resolution plan and a more productive workplace culture. Your colleagues will gradually become more confident and team-oriented when they know what to do with conflict—and how to use it for greater innovation.

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About the Author

CMOE Team

CMOE’s Design Team is comprised of individuals with diverse and complementary strengths, talents, education, and experience who have come together to bring a unique service to CMOE’s clients. Our team has a rich depth of knowledge, holding advanced degrees in areas such as business management, psychology, communication, human resource management, organizational development, and sociology.