Tag Archives: Work place conflict


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.

Work place conflict

Stopping Founder Fallout from Turning into Start-up Failure: Supporting Structures

The statistical failure for new start-up companies is disheartening. Depending how you define ‘failure’ in this context it is estimated anywhere between 70% – 90%. The shear stress involved in starting up a business, inadequate appreciation of who the potential buyers are and, basically, running out of capital are often cited as major reasons for failure.

But another contributor to the failure of start-ups, particularly those involving two or more entrepreneurs, is fallout among the founders. Stella Fayman suggests conflict between founders early on in the process of establishing new companies is a major factor in start-up failure. (http://www.forbes.com/sites/stellafayman/2013/04/19/what-happens-when-startup-founders-disagree/) (accessed 30/07/2013)

The ability to work with conflict should rank alongside those skills essential to successful running of a business. I would suggest that these skills need to be complimented by some practical structural factors at the beginning of any new venture.

Attitude is fundamentally important. In my workshops on conflict resolution I often refer to the two characters that combine to make the Chinese word for ‘crisis’. Ji and Wei respectively refer to ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’. Like ‘crisis’ conflict provides not only a dissonant moment in a relationship but also an opportunity for growth and learning. As Fayman comments in the above article, ‘conflict is good’. A positive orientation toward conflict – along with the realistic expectation that you will have it – may go a long way in providing the positive energy for weathering those early differences you may experience with your business partner(s). Of course attitudes around respect and the ability to listen is equally important. I will talk more fully about these and a particular skills set that will contribute to the success of a start-up in another blog.

Here I want to say a few things about the importance of basic structures incorporated into a business early on. Awhile back I was working with staff involved in a newly launched business providing an alternative education. The enterprise was actually in its second year when I was invited to work with staff and founders in regards to a conflict threatening to bring the business to an end. What surprised me was to discover that no solid policies had been in place regarding conflict resolution and disciplinary procedure. All power devolved to the founders (a married couple) and they were (absurdly) the arbiters in disputes between themselves and their staff. The situation was made more delicate by the relationship between the founders. Short of a mature capacity to bracket personal interests and listen to others’ concerns – which was much in lack – a foundation of clear policy defining procedures for resolving disputes would have provided a solid base for engaging with differences whether among founders or between founders and staff members.

At the very outset of a start-up it would be helpful in the long term if partners could agree on basic policy covering eventualities of differences between them or between them and other workers they employ. The document might identify a third party process for resolving differences and also cover some of the critical co-founder questions posed by Dhamesh Shah: how should shares be divided? How will decisions get made? What happens when a partner leaves the company? Can a partner be fired? By whom? And for what reason? Etc.. (see http://onstartups.com/tabid/3339/bid/99/, accessed 31/07/2013)

Clearly written policy documents outlining processes and procedures or addressing difference will go far in placing a start-up on a more secure footing in a venture that holds enough challenges without conflict between founders.