Tag Archives: workplace conflict


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’. (http://ways4ward.co.uk/stopping-founder-fallout-from-turning-into-start-up-failure/www.forbes.com/sites/stellafayman/2013/04/19/what-happens-when-startup-founders-disagree/) 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.