Danielle Wright looks into the growing role of conflict management within New Zealand workplaces

No one likes to leave a perfectly good job, but, sometimes, conflict at work makes you feel there's no other option.

And if you've been subject to workplace conflict, it's easy to feel like you're the only one who has had to endure such terrible work conditions.

But, you're not alone.

According to FairWay Resolution Limited's research findings into the extent of conflict in New Zealand workplaces, almost one quarter (24 per cent) of employees had experienced at least one disagreement or argument at work that distracted or prevented them from doing their job, within a 12-month period.


FairWay's chief executive Greg Pollock says there has always been and there always will be conflict in the workplace, so it's a case of learning how to turn that conflict into something positive for the business and the individuals involved.

His company now handles around 12,000 disputes per year and works across many sectors to provide conflict management and dispute resolution.

"Conflict is not necessarily a bad thing," says Pollock.

"But, unresolved conflict is. In the past people either went down the litigation route, they tried to deal with it on their own or they just ignored it. Demand for conflict management services has grown because society is maturing and realising there are really good ways to work through conflict."

As someone who has worked in very creative industries and corporate environments, I ask why the latter has been the only place I've witnessed workplace conflict on a scale that's destructive to the health of the workers and on productivity.

"Part of the creative process is about incorporating different ideas, so it might be that people in creative industries are used to working with conflicting ideas, so there's no personal investment in ideas," suggests Pollock, who says their research has shown significantly more conflict in the public than private sector in New Zealand.

Whatever the industry, Pollock says one of the key things in any successful company is leadership skills. Certainly, in the workplace conflicts I have witnessed, a lack of leadership skills in the managers has been easily to blame.

"Real leaders don't play favourites, don't get involved in drama, and they certainly don't tolerate manipulative, self-serving behaviour," wrote author and leadership expert Mike Myatt in Forbes magazine.

Unfortunately, not all managers or business owners are good leaders.

"Technical skills don't always translate into good leadership, where people are free to voice different opinions," explains Pollock.

"In New Zealand, there's a really strong focus on leadership development in the public sector and in the private sector businesses know that strong leaders will create the right environment to secure talent to the company."

He believes conflict can be both positive and negative, as well as having a significant effect on productivity. His advice is to view conflict as normal, but if it's causing stress or reducing job enjoyment, communication is best.

"Try to find a way to resolve the conflict, which might include talking to friends and family, your manager, or others who might help you see things another way," says Pollock.

Failing that, FairWay - a government-owned entity - can step in to train managers or teams on how to negotiate and deal with different personalities, bring consultants in to map a company's culture and audit dispute processes, investigate specific conflict or conduct issues, coach individuals who are in conflict, or send in highly specialised consultants for dispute resolution or mediation.

"We coached a small business owner who had employees with quite different views on what their respective roles were," says Pollock.

"That can really build up, yet when we talked to each of them and gave them the other person's perspective they were able to have that 'lightbulb moment' and understand."

Pollock believes conflict management consulting is a growing profession and yet in 5-10 years' time workplaces will look incredibly different with more people working as self-employed contractors.

"There may be less workplace employment issues but lots of contracting issues," says Pollock.

"It's an inevitable, but exciting, change."

No matter what the future workplace arrangements turn out to be, the key, says Pollock, is to tackle any conflict as early as possible before it gets to be a bigger issue than it needs to be.

"Workplaces will never be free of conflict, so learn to identify it and embrace it," advises Pollock.

"Leaders should take action early, rather than providing the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff."