Opinion: Designing conflict into your organisation

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Workplace bullying is an issue of growing concern for many employers and often stems from situations of long-running conflict between employees. As a result, HR practitioners and organisational leaders can sometimes react to concerns about workplace bullying by seeking to rid the organisation of conflict. But this is a mistake. In fact, a great way to prevent bullying is to deliberately build the capability of the organisation to engage in conflict.
 
Building an organisational culture that seeks to eliminate conflict is unrealistic and simply pushes differences and problems beneath the surface. The result can be a culture of tense, superficial harmony which erodes team trust, undermines organisational effectiveness and leads to sudden outbursts of anger as tempers fray. This is fertile ground for bullying. A far better approach is to design for healthy conflict. Healthy conflict involves respectful but robust discussions where thoughts, processes and approaches can be challenged, and personal differences resolved. Not only does such conflict reduce the risk of workplace bullying by promoting an open and ongoing dialogue between employees, it actually leads to better business decisions. Rather than polite groupthink and reluctant silence, healthy conflict allows for ideas to be voiced and debated in order to test decisions and identify the best option.
 
Leaders are an essential part of developing a culture and practice of healthy conflict. Rather than being scared of managing difficult situations and conversations, leaders need the courage and skill to promote and initiate discussion and debate. This is something to target during the recruitment process and to develop during the employment relationship. Leaders need to understand and utilise a range of conflict intervention strategies rather than simply handing things over to HR every time a situation becomes uncomfortable. They need, for example, to know how to promote and encourage healthy discussion in their team. They need to know what to do and say when they see the early signs of a grievance emerging between team members. They need to know how to draw conflict out into the open, facilitate it constructively and manage it when it threatens to escalate into destructive patterns. Recent case study research from the UK highlights the need for organisations to invest in experiential learning focused on practical skills rather than simply policy updates and classroom learning, as important as these may be. This training can be supplemented and supported by tools such as how-to guides and role play videos that provide a quick and practical reference for leaders facing situations requiring conflict resolution. Such an investment in training and resources involves short-term costs but is essential for the development of an organisation marked by healthy conflict.
 
The need to develop conflict management skills is not, however, limited to leaders. All employees benefit from the ability to raise challenging ideas, debate them and resolve concerns in a mature manner. Without such skills every disagreement can lead to strained relationships, a culture of fear and claims of bullying. Who would want to work in such an environment? Who would give their best under such conditions? Again, practicalities are important. Employees need the knowledge and skill to initiate difficult conversations in the right manner and at the right time and place, and to know how to respond if they notice things getting out of hand.
 
All of this relies on trust. Leaders are unlikely to intervene in a conflict situation if they do not trust the organisation to support them and employees are unlikely to raise issues with each other if they do not trust each other to respond in a mature manner. Trust comes from a common commitment to underlying values that allow for healthy conflict and systems that support employees to raise and resolve conflict. Employees with a shared commitment to a value such as respect can enter into difficult discussions trusting that the conversation will not degenerate into a personal attack. Employees operating in a workplace with a range of supportive HR systems that recognise and encourage the resolution of conflict rather than seeking to hide it or escalate it unnecessarily, are more courageous when challenging processes, approaches and decisions, and, are more likely to come forward with concerns. Clear values and supportive systems create the environment of trust in which leaders and employees can have healthy conflict.
 
Don’t seek to deal with workplace bullying by getting rid of conflict. Such an attempt may in fact create a culture where bullying thrives and organisational growth is stifled. Instead, aim to unleash the power of healthy conflict underpinned by strong values and systems so that leaders and employees can exchange ideas and raise concerns without fear. This will go a long way to prevent workplace bullying and at the same time promote high performance and innovation across the organisation.
 
About the author
Danielle Carney is the principal consultant of PEEL HR Consulting & Mediation. She has 20 years’ experience in HR/ER and is an expert in workplace investigations and mediation. 

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