The Sources & Costs of Conflict in Nursing

Part 1 of a 4-part series

Conflict is an inevitable part of your professional life. This multi-part series will explore the roots of conflict and suggest methods for effectively managing difficult situations.

Let’s face it: health care settings are naturally stressful environments. Workplace stress can give rise to personal conflicts between colleagues – and when the conflict escalates, no one wins.

Here are some typical sources of conflict in health care:

  • Limited time or resources, for example when staffing shortages lead to heavier workloads or longer shifts.
  • Differing goals, work styles or perspectives that can result in unmet expectations.
  • Cultural diversity among colleagues and patients, which can make it a challenge to communicate or understand another’s point of view.
  • High-involvement work settings where collaboration is essential (for example, the emergency department)
  • Disparities in knowledge or power, which are common within the health care hierarchy.

The costs of conflict in health care

Conflict has a negative effect on productivity. Clearly, when people are butting heads rather than working toward a common goal, they are less efficient. But conflict has other hidden costs as well.

“Although conflict can have an impact on productive time, it can have a larger emotional and physical impact,” says Pam Broyles, MSN, RN, a training manager and DNP Executive Leadership student at American Sentinel University. “Many people and organizations do not take into account the entire impact of conflict and therefore do not recognize the true cost.” Pam teaches conflict resolution to staff at the Sarah Cannon Research Institute. She will be a featured speaker, along with Dr. Catherine Garner, in an American Sentinel/ live online chat about this topic (registration information is below).

Attempts to quantify the financial effects of conflict are also eye-opening. A blog post titled The Hidden Cost of Conflict Among Healthcare Teams quoted several studies that calculate these costs. For example:

One study done by the American Management Association on the cost of conflict showed that a manager will spend between 20% to as much as 50% of his/her time dealing with conflict in the work place.

In one particular healthcare system, the cost of conflict in managers’ time alone calculates out to:
45 Managers x $85K/year x 30% = $1.147 Million

And it’s not just money – human lives may also be at stake. The blog of The Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety reported on Managing Conflict Within Health Care Organizations as a Patient Safety Imperative, saying:

Whether conflicts openly threaten a major disruption of hospital operations or whether unresolved conflicts lurk beneath the surface of daily interactions, unaddressed conflict can undermine a hospital’s efforts to ensure safe, high-quality patient care.

It’s something to think about, isn’t it?

Demonstrating conflict resolution skills is just one sign that a nurse is a leader. Learn how you can empower yourself with an online RN to BSN or RN to MSN degree.The stages of conflict

There are times when co-workers’ differing perspectives can be a positive force in the workplace. Different points of view can promote innovation and lead to unique solutions to problems, as colleagues build on each other’s ideas.

However, differing points of view can also become disruptive. One well known model of conflict describes three stages that serve as warning signs that an intervention is needed. These stages are:

  • Differences: Divergent opinions are emerging.
  • Discord: A complete lack of agreement is apparent. People may be taking sides or becoming defensive about their ideas.
  • Dispute: Arguments or other hostile behaviors arise. Levels of emotion and tension are high, and personal interests have taken precedent over shared workplace goals. People are most concerned with “winning” the argument.

At each of these three stages, one of two conditions can result:

  • Discovery: The conflict is recognized and interventions are made. People regain perspective and a sense of teamwork.
  • Damage: Even though conflict is recognized, it’s allowed to escalate. As conditions deteriorate, damage is done to workgroup relationships, patient service, productivity, and team morale.

So how do you manage conflict appropriately, to arrive at an appropriate resolution? See Part 2 in the series, which looks at the five tactics most often used to deal with conflict!

Demonstrating conflict resolution skills is just one sign that a nurse is a leader. Learn how you can empower yourself with an online RN to BSN or RN to MSN degree.