Insights at UBC Sauder

Study says basic mindfulness can be a key to solving workplace conflict

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Posted 2020-09-09

Workplaces are fraught with conflict — but UBC Sauder researchers say just five minutes of mindfulness per day can be a game changer.

Everyone wants to work in a place where everybody gets along, but in reality, workplaces are fraught with conflict — and it’s no wonder, given that people with different personalities and approaches are forced to cooperate, often under pressure.   

In response, most people try to avoid conflict, which can result in issues going unresolved and festering over time. Studies have shown that workplace conflict can make employees less productive and less satisfied with their jobs, and lead to lower performance and higher turnover. 

But according to a new study from the UBC Sauder School of Business, there’s an effective way to help manage conflict on the job: mindfulness. 

For the study, researchers surveyed more than 1,000 working adults in the U.S. about their level of mindfulness, and about their ability to use cognitive reappraisal — that is, to shift their perception of a conflict situation. They also measured participants’ tendency to avoid conflict and to collaborate. 

The researchers found the participants who scored higher on measures of mindfulness and cognitive reappraisal tended to collaborate more in conflict situations, while those who tended to score lower on these measures tended to avoid conflict.  

To determine if people could achieve the same results through training, a second study involving 600 people at a large Vancouver health authority, divided participants into three groups. One group did five minutes of online training in mindfulness as well as 10-15 minutes of mindfulness practice daily; another group was instructed to do breathing exercises; and the third group didn’t do anything differently.

According to study co-author and UBC Sauder School professor Daniel Skarlicki, the people who participated in the mindfulness training showed greater levels of collaboration and less conflict avoidance.

“We found that people who were trained in mindfulness were much more able to engage in higher cognitive reappraisal, and their tendency toward a particular style of conflict was positively affected,” says Skarlicki. “So it worked.”

Skarlicki says certain kinds of workplace conflict are positive, because they involve new ways of approaching a project or a problem, which can lead to innovation and better outcomes; the key is to get people navigating conflict in healthier ways.

“There’s an old saying that when there’s no disagreement or conflict, there’s probably not a lot of thinking going on,” says Skarlicki, who co-authored the study with former UBC Sauder PhD student Adam Kay, now a lecturer at the University of Queensland. 

Most people avoid conflict because of the negative feelings like anger and anxiety that come with it. That avoidance, in turn, prevents them from taking steps to sort things out. By learning how to manage those emotions, says Skarlicki, people can reduce their tendency to avoid conflict, and foster a more positive approach to disagreement.

But the study doesn’t only document the link between mindfulness and healthier approaches to workplace conflict: it identifies how it works through cognitive reappraisal. 

“You can choose how you think. That’s what mindfulness training does — it helps you understand that your thoughts are just thoughts, and you’re going to experience emotions, and that’s just the way it is. You don’t have to get hung up about it,” says Skarlicki, who regularly practices meditation and mindfulness.

What’s more, the study also shows that people’s conflict styles can be changed. “We tend to think that if we’re a conflict avoider, we’re an avoider,” says Skarlicki. “But it turns out you can change people’s conflict styles by helping them deal with the emotion. So you can actually choose how to do it.” 

Just five minutes a day using a mindfulness app can make a difference, he adds.

Skarlicki believes that these issues are especially relevant to the workplace in the age of COVID-19. 

“Considerable research shows that conflict can increase as people interact and communicate virtually - this is because words and their meaning can be misinterpreted due to a lack of in-person cues that aid in interpersonal interactions,” says Skarlicki. “Physical distancing measures also increase the likelihood that conflict will be avoided. Mindfulness training and cognitive reappraisal can help reduce avoidance and foster more collaborative approaches to conflict management. These mindfulness programs are especially relevant today because they can be delivered online.”