All posts by Chris McDermott

About Chris McDermott

Chris McDermott is an Anglican priest and works as an independent consultant and trainer with his own company, ‘Ways4ward Ltd. He has had twenty-five years of experience as a community mediator / consultant and trainer in communication, cultural dynamics and conflict resolution skills. He has been a volunteer mediator for Conflict & Change since 1988 and worked 12 years as Manager of Children & Young People’s Team.. He has been trained in mediation by FIRM (Forum for Inititatives in Reconciliation and Mediation), Bridge Builders UK, and the ADR (Alernatives in Dispute Resolution) Group. He holds post graduate degrees in the field of Intercultural Studies (Wheaton College, IL., USA) and Philosophy & Religion (Heythrop College, University of London).


Love in the Workplace

Tina Turner asks us in her memorable song, ‘What’s love got to do with it?’ Well, if we are thinking about wellbeing and productivity in the workplace, it apparently has a lot to do with it.

The idea of compassion and empathy in the workplace may sound a bit odd – something that does not sit neatly with the usual associations we have with ‘the office’, where key values revolve around efficiency, value for money and successful achievement of targets.
Often little relationship is acknowledged between soft ideas such as emotional literacy and the effective delivery of services. Yet increasingly it is seen that morale and our inner states bare a direct relationship to factors like productivity and efficiency.

Books like Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman‘ and The Empathy Factor by Marie R. Miyashiro, as well as research by Sigal Barsade and Olivia O’Neil, stress the relationship between empathy and compassion in social, work and corporate environments and impact on competitive advantage and worker and team morale.

“Increasingly, today’s most successful companies are bringing love, joy, authenticity, empathy, and soulfulness into their businesses; they are delivering emotional, experiential, and social value – not just profits” (Wharton School of Business in their endorsement of the book Firms of Endearment: How World-Class Companies Profit from Passion and Purpose).

More and more our work entails being a part of teams in which the quality of relationships affect the quality of service. Also the growing international character of our working environments and the risk of cross-cultural misunderstanding underline the importance of emotional intelligence as an integral skill. My understanding of emotional intelligence is that it has an intra-personal dimension that connects me to my own feelings and needs and an interpersonal dimension that enables me to respond appropriately to others’ feelings and needs.

I recall the challenge of working with a local authority in east London in the early 90s and the ready dismissal of the relevance of such dimensions of emotional intelligence as empathy and compassion as ‘touchy feely’ and ‘tree hugging’ notions that had no practical place in the work environment. We have come a long way since then.

Sigal Barsade, Wharton management professor, describes the workplace ethos in which empathy and a concern about co-workers is present as “companionate love”. Her research, alongside Olivia O’Neil from George Mason University, links this to higher levels of morale, team work and customer satisfaction, i.e. successful delivery of services. This has been confirmed not only in their study of a long-term healthcare facility, where one might expect high degrees of empathy and compassion, but also in workplace scenarios beyond healthcare settings. The follow-up study looked at a broad range of industries as varied as real estate and public utilities. Across the board the presence of empathy – or, in Barsade’s phrase, “companionate love” – was associated with greater worker and customer satisfaction, commitment and accountability.

Where there is an evident interest in the personal wellbeing of co-workers by each other and managers, the consequent compassionate and empathic environment seems to enable the work to get done at a higher standard with relationships intact. Where there is a high quality of communication, grounded in an awareness of feelings and needs by managers and workers, the organisational needs, goals and targets are likely to be efficiently served.

So maybe love does have a lot to do with it, Tina. Maybe our Chancellor Sanjeev Baskar’s playful admonition to graduands each year at the Brighton Dome to show him love – or should that be ‘lurve’? – if they want to become graduates also applies to our offices and workplaces around the University. Our wellbeing and efficiency may depend on just how much ‘lurve’ we show one another.


Spirituality and Conflict Resolution Work.

One of the insights gleaned from many years of conflict resolution work in local communities, schools and workplace situations is that it is profoundly spiritual activity. By this I do not mean it is religious in any narrow sense of the word.

Spirituality may at times overlap with religion – and the latter may at times utterly lack spirituality. Spirituality engages us with questions around the meaning of life, our truest selves and our profound interconnectedness with the environment and other people. Conflict sometimes creates a crisis where these matters come to a head.

For those involved in conflict there may be the temptation to give in to negative energies, opt for destructive strategies with regards to the other person and wallow in a broth of resentment, hurt and enemy images. The intensity of our reactions in conflict will vary with the nature of the conflict and also our own personal baggage and histories. Where we are able to negotiate conflict in a manner that enables the processing of all the negative emotions involved, seeks understanding of oneself and the other, pursues healing over retaliation and works toward optimal ends there we encounter spiritual growth.

The now clichéd reference to the Chinese character for crisis combining the symbols for danger and opportunity is still a resonant image for conflict. While fraught with danger it is nonetheless replete with opportunities for growth in the quality of our relationships with others, self-awareness and our capacity for engaging with difference. Conflict to that extent is a school for spirituality.

It is also a spiritual activity for those involved in conflict resolution work (e.g. providing third party facilitation) as qualities of patience, sensitivity, listening, respect for individuals and creativity are developed and honed. Some mediators have also discovered the benefits of meditation practice as one means of nourishing their skills as mediators. The ability to stay with silence, heightened sensitivity to moods, valences and optimal moments of readiness on the parts of individuals to move forward may accrue from such spiritual practices. Senator Mitchell once remarked on the patience required to stay with the recurrent cycles and rehearsals of historic hurts during the talks in Northern Ireland that eventually issued in the Good Friday agreement.

Helping disputing individuals and groups listen to one another in a new way, build bridges, find healing and move toward new opportunities for a different quality of relationship is a deeply spiritual activity.


Delusions of Power: Top Down Models and Crap Management

One of the things that get in the way of wholesome communication and a positive approach to working through conflict in workplace situations – especially when the tension is between employer and employees – is the complex of insecurities around top-down models of leadership.

Leadership freighted heavily with hierarchical assumptions about its role will, on the one hand, have the advantage of being able to make quick decisions without consultation and, where these do not have a major impact on workers, will not do too much to undermine morale and productivity. It may even enhance the quality of workers’ experience at times. But where these decisions have a direct impact on the wellbeing of people, perhaps generating redundancies or affecting the work loads and patterns in ways that may be deemed to increase pressures on workers with whom little consultation about change had taken place, then tensions and disputes arise. The hierarchical approach to these conflicts is rarely helpful in the long term.

Where the disputes give rise to industrial and legal action, the tendency is for the hierarchal style of leadership to take refuge in a laager mentality, dig in for the fight, be defensive over negative comments about managerial decisions, and feed the polarizing energy.

During periods of tension and conflict he manager may go into denial mode as regards the relationship. In one situation where workers and management were in one of the regular meetings taking place within the organization, one of the workers expressed the sentiment that relations were awkward. This brought the response from the top manager, ‘No they are not. When you come to me you are always pushing on an open door.’ Even though this was utterly alien to the workers’ experience, it was said with a sense of deep conviction. Top down styles of management often lead to delusional states if, for no other reason, the boss spends excessive time talking to herself and not with the people who work for her. Consequently the sense of alienation between management and workers was deepened.

In some instances it is possible for other parts of the organization to come to the rescue. Management committees, boards of governors (for schools) and councils or senates (for Universities) may critically evaluate their situations free of domination by defensive egos – of both managers and workers – and elect to establish processes and forums for conflict and disputes to be addressed in supportive and helpful ways to the benefit of everyone.

The defensive ego of management which tends to react rather than respond is more likely to deliver a ‘management’ product that is less than competent to secure the wellbeing of workers – and here I am making a generous assumption that employee wellbeing is a high priority. A space in which disputes are processed, all views laid out, options critically evaluated and that allow everyone, as far as possible, to feel and be heard, can make a difference. It can relieve the manager of the burden of hierarchical habits and balance the power differential between management and workers.

Where a mutually chosen independent third party facilitator supports these spaces, the potential for a positive relationship between staff members and management is optimized. Even if unpopular decisions are arrived at after such a process, the chances are they will not be as encumbered with the negative charge they might have as a dictate from on high.

It makes the difference between ‘crap management’ and competent affirmation of the value of all workers.


Mindful Structures: Working People not Pawns

I recently wrote about mindfulness practice and its impact across a range of domains for wellbeing and suggested the possibility of a ‘Mindfulness Based Conflict Transformation’ model for doing conflict. It might happily sit within the family of other approaches like ‘Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy’ etc..

I am aware that underlying many conflicts in the workplace there are other factors beyond the ‘interpersonal’ dynamics that play a part in fueling conflict. These dynamics are themselves informed and exacerbated by systems of management and communication. We are in need of Mindful Structures as well as Mindful approaches to conflict.

What might these mindful structures look like? There are many possibilities which might suit the needs of diverse work situations. Whatever their shape they will bear certain qualities in common:

1. They will emphasise worker engagement and not just performance management. Management and supervision of members of staff will allow space for support as well as managing workloads and helping workers fulfill targets. There will also be a degree of flexibility in adjusting targets to more humane levels. I recollect a friend telling me that he had been committed to a range of targets by the funders of his organization, which he would work to, but he thought it would be to the damage of his own wellbeing. It may be a challenge to incorporate this kind of flexibility and in the end we may attain an optimal – if not perfect –balance between targets and worker wellbeing.
2. Transparency and communication will also be a feature of mindful structures. Top down dictates will give way to collegial approaches to setting aims and targets where possible. This may be more possible for smaller to medium sized third sector agencies than for statutory sectors. Where the situation may not allow for such ease of planning, targets and aims will be clearly communicated and opportunities created for negotiating the best strategies for working collegially toward work goals. Structures allowing for those who are responsible for delivery of service to listened to have a impact on employee morale, even where a degree of ‘top down’ management is entrenched.
3. Finally, in concert with the above, mindful structures will be seen to gather and respond to feedback from workers in meaningful ways. Feedback may be gathered from supervisions processes, surveys, suggestion boxes or other means but must be seen to be more than ‘non-sultation’ and mechanical. It must be genuine. It may not always be a case of saying ‘yes’ but will always engage openly and with reasons for any decisions taken. Perhaps in some cases it will even allow critical reflection on time-honoured habits of managing work places and risk creative thinking alongside workers to generate new possibilities. It will not necessarily be inefficient but will value the wellbeing of human workers –as opposed to ‘human resources’ – over the holy cow of efficiency. The irony may be that in doing so, in the long term, businesses, organisations and agencies will deliver a higher quality product.

But on that note we may be introducing another aspect of mindful structures: they think in terms of the big picture. I still remember the story of George Buss Sr. leading a group of business tycoons to visit Japan. Their Japanese counterparts reminded them that the Americans’ first port of call when companies face challenging times is to make workers redundant in order to keep profits high. The Japanese, on the other hand, initially would take a cut in salary in order to keep their workers employed. Redundancies were a last resort. This perfectly captured the difference between short-term foci on profits and long-term foci on the wellbeing of workers.

That sounded like a pretty mindful strategy to me. After all, workers are people, not pawns.


Mind the Conflict

Recently I introduced a brief session on mindfulness, meditation and relaxation to the routine of Chaplaincy based activities here at the University of Sussex. It is run in the University’s Meeting House Chapel once a week. It is designed for a wider audience and breaks the usual pattern of praying the office of Morning Prayer. The aim is to provide an opportunity for students and staff to center them selves at the beginning of the busy day. But I realize this statement of aim is rather banal compared to the confirmed benefits of Mindful practice. (By the way, for those unfamiliar with the concept, Mindfulness refers to practices that help us to become deeply of one self, others and what is going on in around us. Usually this will involve a structured practice of ‘meditation’ of some sort. A ‘flavour of the month’ in some ways but touting strategies with roots in ancient wisdom.)

In their book, Mindfulness: A practical guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, Mark Williams and Danny Penman cite several pieces of research highlighting Mindful practice’s positive benefit to mental and physical wellbeing and its potential for changing the physical structure of the brain. They highlight its impact on people suffering from depression, stress and excessive anxiety and the habits of thought with which these are associated.

To that extent approaches like ‘Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy’ (MBCT), etc. might be complimented with approaches to CR training: a Mindfulness Based Conflict Engagement model or MDCE to give it acronym – or something like that. People tend to mind conflict terribly. It is uncomfortable, dangerous and often evokes primitive experiences where conflict has been experienced in deeply negative and painful ways.

Marsha Lucas in her book Rewiring your Brain for Love: Creating Vibrant Relationships Using the Science of Mindfulness, echoing Williams and Penman, proffers a cogent case for Mindful practice as a strategy for rewiring the brain and changing habitual ways of doing relationship that have proved to be dysfunctional and destructive. The potential for enabling new strategies for relating across conflict situations is enormous.

Mindful practices with their millennia old stocks of wisdom provide a strategy for laying down stores of energy out which we might live both profoundly and effectively. Motives for the practice will vary from religious contexts – Buddhist, Christian and other faith-based meditative strategies, humanist based therapies like MBCT or simply as practical strategies for relaxing. In the context of conflict resolution the motives may also be nuanced depending on whether you are someone who simply wants to ‘do conflict’ along more positive lines, build resilient self awareness or on the delivery end of peace building or training.

But MBCE ☺ – oh, why not?! – may provide an important framework that in the best sense of the phrase enables us to mind conflict, to mind it very much and very effectively.


Toxicity: Systems that get us Down

While I firmly believe in the mediation process – whether in workplace, community or international contexts – there are times, especially at the micro-level, when I fear it can amount to a mere sticky plaster placed over a sore. This is particularly the case where conflict is rooted in deep systems of communication, structure and processes that underlay the conflict. While these remain intact and unchallenged, mediation – even if successful at a certain level – can be just a moment in the recurring cycle. Like a perverse Jesus, the conflict will rise again. Interpersonal spats over different styles of communication, varying perspectives and misunderstanding can effectively be addressed by mediation. But when these spats are surface indicators of something unhealthy built into ‘the way it is done here’, then something more may be needed than addressing interpersonal concerns: at the very least an effective mediation process must include space for addressing systemic change.

Speaking to the working environment, the European Agency for Health and Safety at Work defines stress this way: ‘Work-related stress is experienced when the demands of the work environment exceed the employees’ ability to cope with (or control) them.’

The various demands on workers become toxic at that point where the worker’s wellbeing is significantly undermined. Some different toxicities that mediation may need to address include:

1. Poor systems of internal communication: a lack of direct and clear communication, often substituted by emails, or even expectations that ‘they should know this’. Of course much of workplace communication sometimes lacks mutuality – effective feedback systems from workers to management. Rather there are directives or ‘non-sultation’ rather than consultation around decisions that have an impact on the whole workforce. Sometimes just being consulted and having a view heard or valued is sufficient to relieve stress, even when decisions are made that fall short of an employee’s ideal.

2. Target cultures that focus on performance against targets at the expense of realistic capacities of individuals to deliver. One friend of mine was presented with a list of annual targets for his work. These had been developed independent of any conversation with him. He said ‘I will deliver these but it is going to hurt my health and home life! I don’t want to be seen to be failing.’

3. Equally unwholesome discourses about success. The comment from my friend ‘ I don’t want to be seen as a failure’ says much. Do we esteem ourselves as valuable because we are judged so against what may be unrealizable targets? This is not to say that we should not be stretched at work. Of course we should be! Work, at its best, contributes to our development and growth. But when expectations run counter to the wellbeing of a given worker because they are based on targets agreed in an ivory tower or without conversation with those responsible for delivering the work.

The list above certainly does not exhaust the potential toxicities thriving in work environments. But when these toxic features are not addressed at their roots and displaced by more wholesome narratives the potential for conflict remains high – as does the potential for health threatening stress levels leading to burn-out, sick leave, and debilitating lace of morale.

One other toxicity worth mention is the worker’s own narrative regarding their power to provoke change. Another individual I know was increasingly depressed at the lack of support from her managers, their sometime dismissive – if not downright patronizing – style of communication, and the lack of transparency regarding decision-making. This feeling was widely shared within the office to the detriment of morale and commitment to work. Many of her colleagues simply succumbed to ‘the way things work here’ and contented themselves with unhappy mumbles, not caring too much about the quality of their work and, as opportunity permitted, looking for work elsewhere.

Rather than succumb to the negative energy she took the bull by the horns and directly raised these issues with her own line manager. She did this a number of times, always clear but also empathetic with the pressures on managers. Gradually a different style of communication coming from management emerged. It was not perfect but tended more in the direction of respect, consultation and even affirmation. Some of the unwholesome metanarratives affecting the working environment, beyond the control of local managers to effect, certainly remained as background music. (Other interventions are called for at that level) But my friend was able to take power in her own hands and shape, however minimally’ a more humane working relationship with managers.

While it is the larger metanarratives that often contribute toxins into the workplace, in the immediate context we can assert power for positive change in some of those systems that get us down.

Non Anxious Presence 1

Something ‘Touchy-Feely’ for the Office: The Non-Anxious Presence

I have written previously about planks in a preventive approach to workplace conflict. Shortly I will be writing about the costs of allowing conflict to escalate and the costs and benefits of soft processes like mediation. But now for something ‘touchy feely’. (I know how well that stuff goes down with managers!)

Many of the conflicts in which I have been invited to intervene have entailed massive degrees of reactivity on the parts of key players. This has often proceeded from insecurities and anxiety around role clarity, status and perceived threats to a sense of self-esteema and competence. Within this cocktail of reactivity it may take only one player to have the capacity to stand back, take stock and bring a different quality of presence to the situation. Managers may be effective key persons modelling this kind of ‘non-anxious presence’ amid office or workplace battles.

The phrase ‘non-anxious presence’ is a phrase used to connote the quality of this connection with others. This kind of presence is, ideally, free of pre-occupations with our own anxieties (e.g. about what to say next, etc), distracting trends of thought that call us away from the present moment, or crippling resonances of past experience evoked by the present situation or self-interested agendas. Of course anxieties are augmented all the more in situations of conflict, especially when they entail a perceived threat to one’s power, status or sense of competence.

While a ‘non-anxious presence’ is not overcome by any of the above-mentioned dynamics, it is still mindful of them, as they will make up the sometimes very loud background music. We remain mindful of their dynamics and power for disruption. In a word, to be ‘non-anxiously’ present is to allow the intention to be present to others to override any inner turmoil that may be around. This may be immensely challenging in a conflict situation, especially for the parties involved. A key building block enabling this ability to bracket turmoil, while remaining mindful of it’s stirring, is emotional maturity. The capacity for a non anxious presence rooted in emotional maturity serves all of us well, especially in people management roles or as third parties supporting individuals in the heat of conflict.

The development and nurture of emotional maturity has been a key plank in my own work with people over the years. Whether as a trainer or mediator, I have sought to assist the growth of self-awareness alongside technical skills for engaging with conflict. Emotional maturity in the sense I understand it is a capacity to be deeply aware of and name one’s feelings and connect with one’s own thoughts and body. It entails a capability for being earthed in the present moment. Perhaps emotional maturity should by definition comprise part of the person spec for anyone in a ‘people management’ role along side other competencies.

Louise Gold writes about the healing dimension of mediation and proposes ‘presence’ as an integral quality of the mediator. She defines ‘presence’ in terms of centeredness, a conscious connection to one’s deepest values and beliefs, connectedness to the other’s humanity and being congruent, i.e. doing what you are and being what you do. Where this quality of presence obtains, there is also a commitment to our own and the other person’s wellbeing, the mindful awareness of what is going on for both of us while disentangling our own baggage from what belongs to someone else and an ability to sit in the storm of a conflict without losing connection with the calm centre.

The more we cultivate this kind of self-awareness, the more we will be able to bring that quality of presence to the full repertoire of interactions with those around us, friend, family and ‘foe’ alike. Also there is a difference between ‘non-anxious’ presence and being free of anxiety. As a friend recently put it, it is ‘to be anxious but not be anxious about being anxious’. Here anxiousness becomes part of the mindful energy that helps us contribute to the wellbeing of our social worlds.

This may all sound touch feely but I believe that the development of this ‘soft skill’ for managers – and any employee – can prevent some hard consequences both in human and financial costs.


Lessons from a Pig

You may have come across this story before:

Two drivers are careening down a country lane from opposite directions. The winding road is narrow and bounded on each side by hedgerows, affording little space for manoeuvre. One of the drivers, a gentleman, was focused on the road and thinking about his destination. Suddenly, from the opposite direction, a car appears, driving at speed. The two cars just manage to scrape pass each other without damaging the cars. The woman driving the other car shouts ‘Pig!’ as she passes by. The man quickly lowers his own window screen and yells back, ‘Cow!.

As he rounds the next bend he ploughs into a pig standing in the middle of the road.

There often lay behind conflict various assumptions we make about one another. I have often found this to be the case in work based conflicts and neighbourhood disputes. Individuals assume what the other one intends or thinks. ‘‘He is deliberately winding me up with his radio playing.” “She is trying to undermine my work.” “He is a racist!” “They are anti-social and do not care one bit for the wellbeing of others’. ‘He knows how I feel about that!” Etc. The problems then escalate in proportion to the lack of communication between individuals. Sometimes people are just too worked up to attempt direct communication, imagine that they can’t speak to the other person for whatever reasons or simply because the default position of talking about the other person rather than to them is so deeply rooted.

In the absence of direct communication between individuals, caricatures develop and issues multiply and become inflated. The enemy image that is nurtured regarding the other tends to lend weight to one’s own sense of righteousness and being hard-done by. It colours our perception of their every word and action. Where there is a power differential between individuals (e.g. one person has line management responsibilities in relation to the other) the prospects for distortion are immense.

I have often had the experience as a third party mediator of a palpable release of tension as individuals communicate with each other clearly and honestly, very often discovering facts about each other that were, up till then, unknown. Previous perceptions are put into a very different context of understanding we light is shed on them through actually listening to one another. On one memorable occasion, two neighbours who had loathed each other because of an on-going conflict over noise issues not only came to view each other in a manner stripped of previous assumptions but came to an amicable agreement and then shared the cost of a taxi home. I discovered sometime later that when one of the women was widowed shortly thereafter, the neighbour with whom she had been in conflict became a major source of support for her.

But conflicts do not necessarily have to be resolved by third party mediation. We CAN talk to each other. Sometimes, because of habit, we may need someone to coach us along the way. In workplace situations management can help by helping to create an atmosphere of wholesome communication and providing support, from outside if needs be, when communication breaks down. Conflict resolution, empathetic listening and communication training are an investment in people and workforce well worth making.

Where there is a habit and culture of open and honest communication assumptions can be tested before they become hardened into ‘truths’ about one another and conflict processed in a way that is healthy and promotes wellbeing.

So the next time someone shouts ‘Pig!’ in your direction you may wish to consider your assumptions about what they mean. And do drive carefully.

human labour

Conflict ‘Provention’ in the Workplace

Some years ago, John Burton in his book, Conflict: Resolution and Provention’ addresses intractable conflicts on the international stage. He coined the term ‘conflict provention’, which he proposes as an approach to conflict resolution that is based on human needs theory. He noted the broad failure of traditional techniques of social control and enforced resolutions to provoke significant change in arenas of conflict. By ‘provention’ Burton means proactively addressing through structural and dialogical means, the bedrock human needs that remain unsatisfied in the conflict situation, with a view to preventing conflicts from arising.

There is also learning here for conflict resolution in the work place. I was talking to a friend a few days ago who was describing some of the targets that had been set for him regarding a project he was managing. He commented that the targets were highly impractical in terms of the projected time frame and had clearly been determined by funding and local authority agendas. They reflected perfectly the ethos of ‘Performance Management’, which focuses on targets more than the worker delivering the service. The targets are often designed without any reference to the wellbeing of the worker, however worthwhile those targets might be. (Who would not want to see a major children’s event come off successfully, or a range of supportive services delivered in deprived areas of a community?) But where the targets, in their cumulative form, are out of sync with the ‘human resources’ for delivering them, we set the workers up for failure and burnout and generate conditions for workplace conflict. (By the way, I dislike the term ‘human resources’. There is something cold in it that reduces the human worker to a factor of production or a cog in the machine.)

One important ‘proventive’ factor that might usefully be built into a company, agency or business’s approach to work includes a more humane way of setting targets for the workforce. Teachers, social workers and professionals across statutory and private sectors lose many good people through burnout and stress and no doubt often create conditions rife with conflict. (My friend tells me he will deliver the targets but at the cost of his own wellbeing and, perhaps, the wellbeing of his household. He does not want to be seen as ‘a failure’.)

Of course a realistic regard for one’s market and the ‘mission’ of one’s business or agency are important factors in a larger business plan. I am not suggesting that we disregard these but only that something else is needed to humanise the equation. Setting targets should include an evaluation of market concerns, service delivery and the potential impact on the wellbeing of those delivering the service. This will entail a culture shift for many organisations. It also requires, in some context, collaboration – not to mention, creativity – at many levels: local delivery services, local authorities, and central government – and, for third sector agencies, private trust fund bodies. In the private sphere there will also be a number of stakeholders who need to be engaged in a ‘proventive’ strategy for approaching service delivery. This becomes more urgent especially in an atmosphere where cuts are being made and workers are required to pick up the slack in a reduced workforce.

Whether such a shift is likely in what is more and more a buyers’ market characterised by zero hour contracts, big bonuses for those profiting from increasing surplus value on labour, and workers desperate to keep or find jobs remains to be seen. But I suspect that when individual workers feel valued and have a stake in setting targets and agendas for their work they will have more energy, a sense of meaning and good will that will pay dividends in levels of productivity and morale.

Work place conflict 2

Stopping Founder Fallouts from turning into Start-up Failure: Emotional Intelligence

Earlier I briefly outlines a few ideas for getting clarity with regards to some issues that might emerge among founders of start-ups: documented processes for dealing with questions of decision making, what happens when the partnership is dissolved, who gets what and also for resolving disputes. Leaving these matters to an ad hoc approach will likely prove disastrous.

Whatever structures and documented processes are put in place, interpersonal competencies are still significant factors enabling the kind of positive relationships that can weather the challenges of a new venture. There is no substitute for a capacity to engage with differences in an emotionally mature manner. These not only serve husbands, wives, partners and friends well but also contribute to the wellbeing professional relationships. The double bind in one situation where I work was the utter lack of documented processes for addressing conflict but also a corresponding lack of emotional intelligence on the part of key individuals.

As noted before, conflict is cool and potentially enriching when we have the wherewithal to work with it in a constructive way. Where there is a recognised lack of competency in the area of interpersonal communication, founders and those bodies supporting them might consider training and other strategies for developing them early on. A few skills bases that may go some distance in enabling co-founders and their start-ups to flourish -all things being equal: you know your market, have the stamina to bear the pressure of a new start-up and have the capital, etc. – include:

An ability to step back and listen: bracketing your views, personal issues, impulses to say what you cannot take back, etc. and giving space to your colleague to express their views is important. It this can be done with empathy and some acknowledgement of the strengths of your colleagues’ take on things before offering your perspective can change the energy of a conflict. When individuals feel that that they have been listened to they also have the space to listen. This will also allow space for manoeuvre and change as needed for both partners. Being able to maintain a non-judgmental stance and not rush to judgment before coming to a verdict on your colleague before fully hearing them out will diminish the risk of coming to grief on the shoal of misunderstanding.

An ability to respond to sound argument: One of my philosophy professors use to encourage us, however convinced we might be about an issue, to be ready to say, ‘but I could be wrong’. In connection with this he would add that he is not one iota interested in our opinions but in our argument. Being willing to consider the possibilities that another view may have more weight than our own can make the difference in making a good decision or going with a seriously wrong idea simply because ‘it’s my idea!’ Stella Fayman, in the article referred to in the last blog, commented on the importance of being ‘data led’. ( Our readiness to respond to genuinely sound reasoning from a colleague will be informed by the aforementioned ability to step back and listen.

An ability to trust one another: One of my favourite films is ‘The Shawshank Redemption’. Early on in the story Andy Dufresne, innocently convicted of murdering his wife and her lover, narrowly avoids a serious butt-kicking from the sadistic captain of the prison guard Clancy Brown when he asks ‘Do you trust your wife?’ Before getting dumped off the roof he quickly explains the practical significance of the question for avoiding paying taxes. He is saved and finds a lucrative niche for his professional services among prison staff that, in the end, also enables him to provide for his own security upon escape in the future. Trust is a key ingredient for any positive relationship. At the best of times co-co-founders may know each other quite well and substantial trust will already exist. At other times it is a commodity that will need to be nurtured. But trust in the other person’s integrity, motivations and skills are crucial to a successful partnership. It is best at the beginning of a start-up to ask the question: do I trust this person.

In a word, alongside practical structures ensuring a sound basis to the relationship among founders, emotional intelligence will amply compliment whatever business savvy is brought to the adventure of a new start-up.