Develop your skills

Conflict management in the workplace: friend or foe?


In this short article, I’ll examine what conflict looks like, ways of coping, and whether the correct use of conflict could be a force to enable positive change within the workplace. My background is both in nursing and management, and I can honestly say that my role as a manager has often tested me more than my clinical role.

We’ve all experienced situations where conflict is an opposing force. This can reduce our enjoyment and satisfaction at work, and sadly, it can also harm the patients’ experience of their interaction with the healthcare professional (HCP).[1]

We have chosen to work in the NHS. This is an emotional area to work in. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have experienced challenges that have added to an environment where conflict already occurs between professionals, patients, and relatives.

Tension in the workplace isn’t healthy for your workplace in the long run – but eliminating it entirely also isn’t feasible. In today’s complex healthcare organisations, conflicts between staff are regular occurrences. It’s essential to understand the nature of workplace conflict and the reasons why it occurs.

Conflict at work can often take three main forms:[2]

1. Task conflict – includes differences of opinion, viewpoints and ideas. Some task conflict can be beneficial to the change process as it enables people to discuss a more diverse range of views and ideas before making decisions.

2. Process conflict – involves disagreement over the logistics of achieving an outcome or change. For example, who takes on which responsibilities or who delegates to whom.

3. Relationship conflict – often the most destructive form of conflict in the form of perceived incompatibility between people. This may be based on personal values, morals or personality characteristics.

The signs that conflict is brewing. 

There doesn’t have to be the “pistols at dawn” scenario to tell you that there is conflict in the air. Other signals could be:[2]

    • a reduction in people volunteering for tasks or contributing to discussions
    • a decrease in motivation or team morale
    • greater reluctance to offer ideas or discuss feelings openly
    • an increase in dissatisfaction or the development of a ‘them and us’ culture
    • greater avoidance between team members, which may also include increased rates of sickness absence.

An approach that I adopted early in my management career was using the skills available to me within my Trust. I was a new manager and wanted to become the manager I had always wanted for myself. I wanted to both support and challenge my staff to become confident, empathetic, and effective practitioners. This was for all grades of staff from Band 2 to Band 7, across clerical and nursing.

The support came in the form of an organisational psychologist who was a keen practitioner in Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Building on the trust that already existed, the team agreed to complete their MBTI profiles, and this allowed us to understand our preferences and recognise the different ways we respond to the good and not-so-good situations we encounter daily in the NHS.

We undertook numerous team development sessions over 20 years using the MBTI approach.

Initially, some were sceptical. However, over the years, when new team members joined or if we were losing focus, we would return to a session to re-charge the team’s energy levels and remind everyone what we were there to achieve. These became sessions enjoyed by staff and made us use any conflict as a possible change agent.

Over the years, when new team members joined or if we were losing focus, we would return to a session to re-charge the team’s energy levels and remind everyone what we were there to achieve.

By valuing each member’s individual preferences and roles within the team and the organisation, we managed to deal with any conflict as it arose. The fact that we all were comfortable with the MBTI approach gave the team members the confidence (no matter what grade) to speak up, and by doing so, we rarely had a conflict, which would have been detrimental to the team.

A team culture mustn’t become too “agreeable” as change can become sluggish. On the other hand, people who feel a lot of conflict or friction may not work to their best capacity, reducing the quality of care they offer to patients and colleagues.[1]

We did, of course, experience times of unrest; however, we were usually able to determine what the issues were before they became detrimental to the team morale. We could spot the downward spiral of colleagues and take appropriate action.

The skills we all obtained over the years enabled us not only to function as an effective team with little sickness and absenteeism, but it also helped us cope with the external conflict which often came in the form of personalities and pressures within the NHS.

In my view, prevention is better than cure.

Putting the effort in as a manager to create a safe and compassionate environment where conflict can be spotted early and discussed is essential. It can turn potential harm into a friend rather than a foe.

Ask your HR department or practice manager if you can access tools when times are good to enable you to cope when times are tough and help ensure that the care we give our patients isn’t compromised due to workplace conflict.

[1] Royal College of Physicians (RCP). Work and wellbeing in the NHS: why staff health matters to patient care. 2015. Available at: https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/guidelines-policy/work-and-wellbeing-nhs-why-staff-health-matters-patient-care Accessed April 2021.

[2] NHS England and NHS Improvement. Managing conflict. Available at: https://www.england.nhs.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/qsir-managing-conflict.pdf Accessed April 2021.

Any advice given and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the view of Chiesi Limited (Chiesi).  All content in this article is for informational and educational purposes only.  Although Chiesi strives to always provide accurate information, it is not responsible for and does not verify for accuracy any of the information contained within.

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UK-RES-2100469 April 2021