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Can Conflict be part of a Healthy Organization?

Working with conflict in organizations I often hear the phrases; Disrespect in the Workplace, Bullying and Harassment and Stress Leave. Can conflcit be part of a healthy organization?

Conflict is everywhere. It’s a natural phenomenon caused by friction resulting from actual or perceived differences or incompatibilities. We as human beings are all unique, we think and act differently based on our upbringing, life experiences, culture, values and beliefs. These differences can create a rich environment in the workplace where creative solutions and thought provoking discussions are the norm.

An organization’s goal should not be to end or eliminate conflict, but transform the way it is expressed from destructive forms such as aggression or bad behaviour into more constructive forms of dialogue and negotiation. Signs that conflict is evident and not effectively managed often show up in  as complaining, disrespectful or bullying type behaviours and if ignored may lead to harassment and stress leave for affected employees. This is the unproductive, unresolved conflict, not the productive, creative version that we want to flourish.  Exploring what’s behind these signs at an early stage can have many positive results for your organization. Conversation and dialogue that focuses on needs and not positions by probing values, expectations and beliefs to build understanding is the key.

Conflict is avoided because it is usually uncomfortable. Conflicts continue to fester when ignored and contrary to popular belief will not disappear if left alone. Many people don’t know how to participate in and manage work conflict in a positive way. In poorly managed conflict, people sometimes get hurt. They become defensive because they feel under attack personally. Co-workers have to work with each other every single day and they are afraid conflict will harm these necessary ongoing relationships.

Fostering an organizational environment in which differences of opinion are encouraged is a good first step in creating effective dialogue. Make differences the expectation and healthy dialogue about issues and ideas the norm. When people can disagree with each other and lobby for different ideas, your organization is healthier. Disagreements often result in a more thorough study of options and better decisions and direction.

Other actions that can foster a healthy environment:

Create team norms or charters for all groups that come together regularly to lead a department, solve a problem, or to improve or create a process. These are the relationship guidelines or protocols group members agree to follow. They often include the expectation that members be open and transparent, that all opinions are equal, and that each person will participate in a productive manner. Decide early how you will manage conflict when it arises. These guidelines can also set up the expectation that personal attacks are not tolerated whereas healthy dialogue about ideas and options is encouraged.

Provide employees with training in healthy conflict and difficult conversations. Sometimes people fail to manage conflict because they don’t know how to do so comfortably and without negatively affecting relationships. All staff will benefit from education and training in interpersonal communication, problem solving, conflict resolution, and particularly, non-defensive communication.

Reward, recognize, and thank people who are willing to take the time to have respectful conversations. You can publicly thank people who are willing to challenge positional thinking in a healthy way. Your recognition system, bonus system, pay and benefits package, and performance management process should all reward the employees who practice personal organizational courage and pursue appropriate work conflict.

Have an external organization assess the effectiveness of your conflict management systems and the options that are currently in place for employees to manage conflict. The Workplace Fairness Institute trains analysts to utilize a process that derives input from various levels of the organization. The analysts utilize this input to discuss and explore needs with key players and support the organization to develop effective systems to improve how conflict is managed.

Knowing how to explore issues and participate in meaningful work conflict is key to your organization’s success. The actions above provide a foundation for your organization to integrate peace, harmony and fairness into its culture.

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