Preventing workplace conflict: Part One

Preventing workplace conflict: Part One

Preventing workplace conflict: Part One 1200 800 Brook Thorndycraft

Prevention saves an organization time and energy

A new manager faces a conflict that has gone on for several years. The previous manager ignored signs of conflict within the team, hoping it would go away. The manager taking over the team contacts me in the hope I can help them function better, but he has the budget for only one day of mediation.

The twelve people on the team have broken into three camps that fight and assume the worst about each other. Multiple team members have filed complaints, and everyone is miserable.

What do I tell this frustrated manager? Unfortunately, one day of mediation might have worked in the first year, but not after conflict within the team has been left to smoulder for over a decade. By this point, intervening to improve how the team functions will demand much more time, energy and effort.

When it comes to workplace conflict prevention, here are some tips every leader should know.

Brook Thorndycraft

Let’s look at what organizations can do to keep conflicts from becoming unnecessarily stressful and disruptive.

Organizational culture: a key to workplace conflict prevention

Think of conflict prevention as a pyramid. It’s very stable when right side up, but if you turn it upside down, it becomes a tippy hazard. This idea comes from the book Circle in the Square: Building Community and Repairing Harm in School by Nancy Riestenberg. Nancy applies a public health framework and a restorative approach within a school setting. Her work has had a huge impact on my understanding of taking a preventative approach to workplace conflict prevention and other organizational issues.

When it comes to conflict, bullying, and harassment, the response of many organizations fits the metaphor: an upside-down pyramid teetering on one point.

Many workplaces only respond to conflict when the problem has escalated to a crisis.  Taking a preventative approach to workplace conflict creates a stable base and a healthier workplace.
Reactive approaches to conflict ignore the early signs. As a result, they end up putting the most energy and resources into damage control.

At the bottom of this inverted pyramid, a tiny amount of attention goes to preventative approaches such as supporting healthy disagreement, creating cultures of feedback, and prioritizing psychologically safe workplaces. A slightly larger amount of attention goes to dealing with conflicts or complaints as they come up, particularly if there are legal implications, a grievance procedure, or human rights process. However, when organizations ignore sources of conflict until they have escalated, the widest section of the pyramid ends up being on damage control after a major complaint, investigation, or workplace trauma.

In comparison, a preventative approach to conflict offers a stable base that helps to protect against the most serious crises such as formal complaints or entrenched conflicts like the one described above.

What the pyramid metaphor shows is that if you wait to engage until a conflict turns into a crisis, there will be more suffering, wasted energy, and expense. When you think about your organization’s overall approach to conflict, is it “Wait and see” until it’s time for damage control or even crisis management? This kind of reactive approach to conflict is like a pyramid that’s out of balance. Instability leads to lots of stress, and when the structure tips, people can get squished under the pressure!

Building a healthy conflict culture

So, what does a stable response to conflict look like? It’s possible to build a healthy conflict culture in your organization, and a strong and stable base for preventing conflicts from escalating. You can develop your organization’s ability to access greater flexibility and capacity whenever a problem comes up.

An organization with a healthy conflict culture has the fluidity and flexibility to encourage disagreement, prevent serious harm, and learn from both successes and mistakes. Even more, skills such as listening, observation, and curious questioning that help you you address conflict when it’s small can also support an organization to uncover organizational patterns that created the conflict in the first place. In organizations that take this approach a conflict is less likely to become a crisis that requires costly and traumatic intervention.

Let’s look at some elements leaders can work with to create a culture that prevents conflicts from escalating into crisis. In my next post, we’ll dig deeper into each of these factors to understand why they are preventative, how they work and leadership skills that support them.

Workplace conflict prevention tips for leaders

  • Be transparent about power and decision making in the organization
  • Celebrate the value of diversity 
  • Prioritize conflict skills and emotional intelligence, especially for leaders
  • Emphasize feedback, reflection, and learning
  • Support people to build trust-based relationships
  • Develop effective and clear conflict systems
  • Address burnout and treat people as whole people
  • Be intentional about building community on remote teams
  • Make it safe for people to come forward with problems

Remember that conflict can help, not only hurt

Conflict in any workplace is inevitable, but it doesn’t always have to be destructive. In fact, conflict can be an amazing source of creativity and new ideas that integrate the best of everyone’s perspective. The key is to create a workplace in which people feel comfortable and empowered to raise concerns, share ideas, and talk about challenging issues. While creating a healthy conflict culture takes time, you can take concrete steps toward a preventative approach to workplace conflict.

The next blog post will give more information about each of the tips listed above.

Do you want to take a preventative approach to conflict? Check out our upcoming learning opportunities for leaders: Building Emotional Agility and Generative Conflict: Leadership Skills for Healthy Workplaces to help you create an environment of honest communication. You can also sign up for the Big Waves mailing list for special promotions and to be the first to know about the upcoming launch of an at-your-own-pace conflict skills training!