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.

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