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.