Managing conflict through mindfulness

29 July 2020

Written by Dr Adam Kay, a Lecturer in Management at UQ Business School for Inside Small Business.

Widescale disruption wrought by COVID-19 has forced employers to rethink, re-evaluate and reposition how they do business. As restrictions ease and operations resume, SME and start-up employers have a rare opportunity to reshape their workplace culture. Specifically, they have the chance to create a more “conflict-positive” workplace.

Why is conflict important?

Workplace conflict is pervasive and is commonly viewed as damaging, disruptive and dysfunctional, something to be avoided at all costs. However, it’s not conflict itself people avoid; rather, it’s the stress and negative emotions that conflict can provoke. If managed constructively, however, conflict can be enormously beneficial.

Dr Adam Kay

When faced with different ideas and opinions, we learn new things. When old policies and procedures are challenged, we see things from a fresh perspective and can improve the status quo. In short, conflict is the birthplace of growth and innovation.

Workplace conflict in the wake of COVID-19

Encouraging employees to manage conflict constructively is challenging at the best of times and even harder during periods of high tension and stress. When fuses run short the risk of destructive conflict rises. This is the reality facing many SME and start-up employers as they resume operations amid the unparalleled pressure and economic stress of COVID-19.

As staff return to work, businesses are in a unique position to push the reset button on how their people view and manage conflict, and start to cultivate a more conflict-positive workplace.

Managing conflict

Mindfulness training is widely known for its health and wellbeing benefits, but employers can also use it to help staff manage conflict in these uncertain and tense post-COVID times.

Mindfulness teaches people to more effectively relate to their thoughts and feelings, enables them to better regulate negative emotions and behaviours, and helps them manage their inner experience of conflict in a more positive manner. In doing so, mindfulness training limits their tendency to run away and hide from conflict and increases their willingness to lean into it collaboratively for win-win solutions.

Mindfulness vs conflict management training

Conflict management workshops have existed for years and can equip people with useful tactics for managing conflict. However, tactics can be divorced from people’s real underlying view of conflict and they are less likely to work if people have a negative outlook on conflict itself.

By contrast, mindfulness training can fundamentally improve people’s attitude towards conflict by enabling them to question the negative thoughts and feelings it provokes in them and instead look at it from a more positive perspective.

Moreover, learning to deal with conflict is rarely if ever mentioned in mindfulness training, and it involves no insinuation that people need to improve their conflict management skills. Learning to manage conflict constructively is but one of many happy byproducts of mindfulness training.

Mindfulness training in a socially distanced world

Mindfulness in organisations is traditionally taught in person. It typically involves intensive mental training and a substantial investment of time and money.

Recently, however, online programs have emerged to teach mindfulness in a far more accessible manner. Such programs offer a low-cost solution to help people learn mindfulness wherever they want, whenever they want. This makes online mindfulness training an increasingly attractive option for cash-strapped employers in a socially distanced world.

Mindfulness training – supported by science and backed by research – not only delivers health and well-being benefits but also empowers people to more constructively manage the heightened conflict that can be expected in a high-pressure, post-COVID-19 work environment.

SMEs and start-ups now have a unique opportunity to harness the power of mindfulness to establish a more conflict-positive workplace culture. They would do well to take stock.