It was the worst time in the company’s short history.
A disagreement over organizational values escalated to a formal complaint of bullying and harassment against senior leadership, which led to a formal investigation. While the complaints of bullying were determined to be unfounded, it didn’t matter. Staff at Enviro* – a rapidly growing environmental social enterprise – felt demoralized and unsure about how to move forward. People felt suspicious and paranoid. They formed into camps and alliances and assumed others had bad motivations. Several people left because of the damage to the team culture, and no one really wanted to work there.
Andrew, Enviro’s Director of Operations was at a loss for how to support the team, but he knew that something major needed to be done. They needed a solution to the immediate crisis, but he had a bigger vision than that. He wanted to build a healthy workplace culture where people could collaborate respectfully, disagree constructively, and feel safe enough to learn from feedback. The goal was to not have to go through anything like this again.
He reached out to Big Waves for help.
When I first started working with the organization, Andrew expressed skepticism that it was possible to fix the high level of conflict and distrust. The staff who filed the complaint felt let down, because the investigation had made relationships worse rather than creating the changes they were hoping for. Leadership felt they had been unjustly accused and retreated into defensiveness. It was obvious that they would not be able to hear each other.
We explored a range of options and made the decision to start with one-on-one leadership coaching to help the leadership team move out of defensiveness, reflect on how their behaviour had led to the complaint, and build their capacity for healthy disagreement. We also set aside times in which members of the staff could come to me or Andrew to vent and share their concerns.
After a couple of months of coaching, we were noticing a shift toward more optimism and we decided that we were ready to talk about what had happened. I mediated a couple of very emotional sessions between the staff who filed the complaint and the leadership who were accused. Everyone talked about the initial disagreement and how the investigation had impacted them. By the end of those two sessions, people were cautiously willing to continue the work to rebuild trust.
However, the damage from the crisis went beyond the people who were directly affected. Following the mediations, we decided to facilitate a dialogue with everyone on the staff and leadership team. The entire staff had felt the impact of the conflict and investigation, and needed some closure. People needed information about what the organization was doing to prevent similar situations in the future. At the same time that we had been going through the coaching and mediation, Andrew and the leadership team were developing more robust conflict resolution and feedback policies. We presented those policies before that full staff session so that people could ask questions and raise concerns.
The crisis was over, but relationships still suffered
The acute crisis was over, but people were still nervous and a bit reactive. We were aware that small disagreements had the potential to escalate out of proportion. Over the next four months, I facilitated conflict resolution training with the leadership team and eventually with the whole staff. Throughout this time, I was available as an external support person for staff to talk to if they had concerns or wanted to process more about their experience.
As the level of conflict decreased and people began to rebuild trust, we developed an ongoing leadership development program to help leaders coach staff, give and receive feedback, support staff and team development, and be aware of their personal leadership challenges and strengths. We moved from crisis intervention to prevention and eventually to innovation.
Planning for a healthy and creative future
Enviro has grown rapidly. People mostly feel like the conflict has been put behind them. Staff is very positive and motivated about the work they do.
But the scars from the conflict aren’t totally healed. A recent employee engagement survey informed us that people are worried that something similar will happen again. Some people are afraid to disagree. Andrew and the rest of the leadership team recognize this is a problem. For a company that prioritizes innovation, creativity, risk taking, and relationship building, the ability to disagree is essential.
We have now laid enough of a foundation to be able to do the deeper work of creating a psychologically safe, trusting and courageous culture. Leadership has decided to take a proactive and preventative approach to conflict by building capacity, strengthening relationships and developing the skills to engage in dialogue around controversial topics.
We have just started a Community of Practice group for anyone in a management role to build their capacity to support creative conflict on their teams. We are planning an organization-wide change management strategy to support a culture of generative conflict, feedback, and growth mindset.
You don’t have to wait for the crisis
I recently asked Andrew what has been the biggest learning from this experience. He told me, “Don’t wait for the bad thing to happen, get out in front of it. I wish we had been proactive about developing our leadership capacities and strengthening our relationships before there was a complaint. It would have saved us so much suffering.”
Enviro committed to this deep leadership and change work because they learned from the crisis that they have no choice but to create a healthy workplace culture if they want to be able to thrive and innovate.
But it’s not necessary to go through the pain and loss of a crisis to experience the benefits of a culture based in trust, learning and respect.
If you’re just getting started, build it right from the beginning. If you are already established, notice the early warning signs and course correct before things escalate.
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 start that process. 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!
*Name and details changed for confidentiality.