Preventing workplace conflict: Part Two

Preventing workplace conflict: Part Two

Preventing workplace conflict: Part Two 1200 800 Brook Thorndycraft

You can create a healthy conflict culture: a space with the fluidity and flexibility to encourage disagreement, prevent serious harm, and learn from both successes and mistakes. In this kind of setting conflicts are less likely to escalate into a crisis that requires costly and traumatic intervention.

Think of an organization’s approach to conflict as a pyramid: very stable when right side up, with a preventative approach as a strong base, but if you turn it upside down and put the majority of attention on reacting to crisis, it becomes a tippy hazard.

Last month, I posted a brief explanation of a preventative approach to conflict. This time let’s dive deeper with a closer look at how leaders can structure an environment that addresses conflict in healthy ways, even with the added challenge of remote work.

1. Be transparent about power and decision making

Be open and transparent about where the official and unofficial power lies in the organization, and what mechanisms for accountability exist when power is misused. Everyone needs to know who makes what decisions, how they are made, and how people who are impacted by those decisions can have a say in what happens. Make sure that decision makers follow clear policies and procedures to ensure clarity about why a decision was made, and to create fairness.

Going beyond transparency about power, find ways to support people to have as much autonomy as possible in their role. Define where people have the authority to make decisions about their own work, and then let them make those decisions without micromanagement.

2. Celebrate diversity

We are in a moment right now in which many workplaces recognize the need to focus on justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI), but may do it out of a sense of obligation or a fear of liability. A truly preventative culture goes far beyond these motivations to celebrate, nurture, and encourage diversity (in a broad sense of the word). They see it as a core value and a source of strength, recognizing we are stronger, more adaptive, more creative, and more able to navigate hard times in settings that value all of the different perspectives, viewpoints, and experiences, particularly the ones that have tended not to be heard. It is about asking, “What might a different perspective, viewpoint or experience help me to see that I’m not currently understanding?”

In addition, in order to truly celebrate diversity, we have to acknowledge, bring to light, and work to change the ways that systemic inequalities show up in our relationships and organizations. As a leader, it is important to build your capacity and sense of safety to sit with discomfort, acknowledge your blind spots, and take responsibility for unearthing and shifting the ways that organizational culture can reinforce inequities.

3. Prioritize conflict skills and emotional fluidity, especially for leaders

Communication, conflict, teamwork, and feedback skills should be considered essential professional development goals for everyone, and they are absolutely core job skills for leaders. It can be very isolating and stressful to be an organizational leader.

As just one example, leaders are held responsible for unpopular decisions, and are often distrusted simply because of their power. For some leaders, this can lead to resentment or feeling unappreciated. For others, it can lead people to avoid taking unpopular but necessary actions, or to avoid giving feedback out of a desire to be liked or to feel part of the team.

Like all humans, leaders have their own triggers, survival strategies, and conflict habits that if left unexamined and combined with positional power, can be a quick route to conflict. Set aside time and resources to support leadership to develop new habits and practice complex and emotionally challenging interpersonal skills. Leadership coaching offers a safe container to support the emotional and reflective work that is needed for effective leadership.

4. Emphasize feedback, reflection, and learning

Failure can be as good or better a learning experience as success. But, to really learn from failure, people need constructive feedback and opportunities to reflect in ways that deepen understanding, rather than triggering people’s self-criticism. The benefits of feedback go far beyond conflict prevention. Research demonstrates that workplaces that promote a growth mindset and prioritize learning are more flexible, more able to learn from mistakes, and ultimately have greater success in meeting their goals (For more information about the research, see here and here).

Feedback should be consistent, transparent and universally applied. Everyone should know how and when they will receive feedback, and how they will be supported to integrate it into their work. All members of the organization benefit from receiving feedback in the same way, including people in leadership.

5. Support people to build trust-based relationships

Where there is more trust, there is less conflict, and less suffering and division when it does happen. But conflict also negatively impacts trust, and conflicts that escalate further reduce trust. Support people to build relationships that allow them to take risks. People don’t have to like each other. They do need to have faith that they can rely on each other, and that if something goes wrong, people will be encouraged and supported to take accountability for what happened.

For an organization to create a sense of trust, people need to sense that fairness is present, and that everyone is committed to working through problems with transparency and authenticity. Leaders reward collaboration and mutual support more than competition, and model behaviours that build trust. These efforts reinforce each other, as a team with good relationships also tends to decrease stress for managers, which in turn leads to better management practices.

6. Develop effective and clear conflict systems

Make sure people know what to do if they have an interpersonal conflict they can’t manage on their own, or if they have a concern about harassment, bullying, or discrimination. Make sure you have clear policies and practices that everyone knows how to access. Clear policies and practices can help ensure potential issues are caught before they become big problems.

7. Address burnout and treat people as whole people

Conflict prevention is one of the many reasons to care about the mental wellbeing of employees. When we are experiencing chronic stress, our emotional resilience and ability to connect with others is much lower. When people are burnt out or overwhelmed by life stressors, small disagreements are more likely to escalate quickly. If you are wanting to build a preventative culture, address causes of burnout and chronic workplace stress, and also remember that people have stressful lives outside of work. Options such as wellness leave, flexible work schedules, and leadership modeling work/life balance are a few helpful ways to remember that people have more going on than work.

8. The most important element is safety

To really practice prevention, people need safe ways to bring concerns forward without a fear of reprisal. If you tend to find out about conflict only when the situation has escalated to the point where serious damage has been done, it is likely that the environment is not safe enough for disclosure. The first step is to develop an understanding of why people aren’t coming forward. Maybe the people they are expected to talk to are perceived as biased or punitive. Maybe there are unclear policies and procedures, and employees are concerned they will do something wrong. In many workplaces there is a sense that information will not stay confidential. Often, people fear that speaking out will lead to negative performance reviews, or being ostracized by co-workers or managers. The first step to encouraging earlier acknowledgment of a problem is to find out the specific reasons people in your workplace don’t come forward. Start asking questions about what might be happening under the surface.

A note about remote work

COVID has changed so much in our lives, including how we relate to other people. When people work remotely, it is a lot harder to build and maintain the kinds of relationships that support a healthy conflict culture. It is also harder to see the early warning signs of escalation. If your workplace is remote, you will want to be even more proactive about building trust, supporting open communication, encouraging learning and feedback, and prioritizing relational skills. I have heard many employers say that now that their workplace is remote, there is no more conflict, but research shows this is not true. It will just stay under the radar longer, during which time there is a good chance of escalation. If you are planning to stay remote after the pandemic, get some support to strategize around creating a healthy virtual culture.

Remember that conflict can help, not hurt

Conflict is inevitable, and it can be generative. In the end, the most effective route to a resilient organization is to create a healthy workplace in which people feel comfortable and empowered to raise concerns, share ideas, and talk about difficult issues.

While shifting the balance is a culture change process that happens over time, there are concrete steps you can take right away to move your workplace in that direction. If you are interested in learning more about how conflict escalates and de-escalates, and how to create a preventative culture, sign up for my newsletter or follow me on social media to be one of the first to hear about new training and resources for workplace conflict escalation and prevention.

And finally, if this blog resonated with you and you want more information about creating a preventative workplace, 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!