It’s an ill wind, as they say, because our mediation service has never been so busy – but I do find myself asking, why is there so much conflict around at work?
Shift towards empowering management
Managers are expected to coach and empower people to work effectively together, and have devolved HR responsibilities. The trouble is, many managers just don’t have the skills or confidence to do this new part of their job well, so either give up, or go in ham-fisted. New managers are often brought in who take a different and often less accommodating view of past practices and performance. And matrix management can result in distance between staff and their managers. The lack of routine contact between manager and employee means neither builds confidence in one another, so it becomes difficult to raise issues from manager to team member and vice versa. So issues are left until they become unbearable – and then they escalate rapidly into grievances or disciplinaries.
Fluid and ever-changing teams mean the need to make your mark and build your ‘status’ is constant: and teams are perpetually in ‘storming’ mode, lacking the time to move into ‘performing’. Change means increased competitiveness between groups; rivalries; resistance to new ways of working; the loss of common goals; people feeling undermined and disorientated; lack of long-term focus. The ‘relationship’ glue that often holds people together in tough times, and that allows the elasticity required for ‘give and take’ never has time to set in place, so teams fall apart under pressure.
Changing workplaces, and changing employers
When the working culture and structures change rapidly, we find it difficult to get our psychological needs met – and so conflict is never far away. When we feel vulnerable, we become more protective – and this comes out in sticking to the past, resistance, and handing on to cliques in order to keep hold of what is familiar. Consultants often concentrate on the mechanics of restructuring and change, but the need to address value differences and ‘bringing people with you’ is left unaddressed.
Local resolution of grievances – in the 21st-century workplace people are more aware than ever of their right to dignity, equality, and health and safety at work. They raise issues that will not always be comfortable or straightforward to deal with. Problems associated with dignity, equality and safety are difficult to define and often involve a degree of conflict. Managers will inevitably become more involved in handling and resolving such issues. Local resolution by the line manager of the people involved is proposed as the first step in most modern procedures.
We are losing our skills, confidence and motivation to talk about differences at work, despite the intention of policies and procedures designed to support us. Differences often result in misunderstanding and errors of commission and omission in our interactions. But many managers are reluctant to manage people from minorities in their place of work; or flee to HR whenever someone raises a complaint about their treatment as a member of a protected group.
Increased demands on productivity and output
With headcounts being cut back, and those remaining in post having having greater workloads, the demands on employees can become too great and trigger flight or fight responses. People go off sick, or move employers. There is just too much to do, to leave time for connecting with others at a human level – and email and social media have exacerbated the trend away from conversation to the point where we have forgotten how to raise difficult issues in person.
But there are solutions! Explore our website or get in touch to find out how we can help your organisation minise the effects of conflict where you work.