Embracing Emotions in the Workplace

During one of our Strategies for Workplace Conflicts programs, a participant commented that she told her staff that she didn’t “DO emotion!” I really appreciated her forthright statement which led to a valuable discussion about the place of emotion in the workplace. How do we handle the expression of emotion? Are emotions welcome or not? How do we handle an emotional outburst in a meeting or deal with strong negative emotions between two co-workers in conflict? How do we deal with our own emotions?

Emotions are part of being human. We are wired to feel. Many of us are not in close touch with our feelings, often because of our upbringing. Are you familiar with the phrase “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all!”? Emotions can spring up suddenly and may pass just as quickly. Yet, if they are not dealt with, they may fester and intensify.

Consider your workplaces during the pandemic. Can you name some of the emotions that you are experiencing? What about your employees or team members? I’m guessing that fear, frustration, loneliness, grief, and exhaustion may be present. There may also be some positive emotions such as relief (from avoiding long commutes for example).

In this article I’m suggesting something that may seem counter intuitive. Rather than avoiding or squelching the expression of these emotions, try leaning in and welcoming them into your workplace.

Download PDF: Embracing Emotions in the Workplace

Conflict Coaching in the Workplace

It is common for employees to seek help from their manager if they are experiencing conflict or relationship challenges in the workplace.  What are your options as a manager to respond in a way that provides benefits to the employee, to the workplace as a whole and to you?  Consider this scenario:

You are Karen’s manager:

  • Karen is a longtime front line employee in the Hamilton branch and has recently taken a promotion as a front line manager, overseeing 20 full and part-time staff in the same location.
  • Karen asks you for a meeting to discuss how to handle “a problem employee”, Frank.
  • She explains that Frank has been resisting the improvements she has been implementing in the location’s workflows.  She worked there so long she knows all the changes that need to be made and began making them as soon as she became manager.
  • Karen explained that staff resistance has forced her to “manage them tightly”.
  • You have recently received complaints from three of Karen’s staff alleging that she was micromanaging, stifling creativity and allowing them no voice in the change management process.

How would you handle this meeting with Karen?

It seems to you that she is looking for you to step in or at least to give her the answer to her difficulties.  Like many of us, your first inclination might be to jump in and give Karen suggestions, advice or recommendations or even directions about what she should do.  After all, isn’t that what she is asking you for?  And don’t we feel pleased that she has enough respect for us and our experience that she asks for our advice and direction?

In this moment you have a choice.  You can provide advice or direction or you could do something different.  But what?

Advice-giving might be appropriate in some situations, perhaps when it is a simple request, an emergency situation or some decisive action is needed immediately.

But I suggest that there are risks and potentially significant downsides (to you, the employee and the workplace) to taking that approach in every situation without further exploration.  In particular, there is a risk to the employee’s future growth and a risk to your time and role as manager.

What is a viable alternative?

Rather than giving Karen “the answer”, it is worthwhile to start by taking some time to reflect more deeply on the situation.  Karen is a new manager.  She has the difficult task of trying to manage people who were once her peers.  This is likely an ongoing challenge rather than a one-off situation. Is this an opportunity for Karen to learn and grow?  If so, how can you best support her in that learning?

Perhaps you could try a conflict coaching approach.

What is conflict coaching?

Conflict coaching is a relatively new type of coaching and my primary source of inspiration has been Cinnie Noble.[1]  She is a pioneer of the process she calls conflict management coaching (also known as conflict coaching). She explains that conflict coaching was developed on the foundation of three pillars: professional coaching, alternative dispute resolution and neuroscience. She developed her model in 1999, recognizing that workplace (and other) interpersonal disputes are not always about “issues” but can be triggered by how people interact with each other. People are looking for a one-on-one service model to help them manage disputes independently – with increased skill and confidence. A basic framework for conflict coaching starts with the client identifying his or her goal. By using a process of inquiry and other methods, coaches help clients to increase their level of awareness, shift their perspectives and focus on ways to achieve their objectives.[2]

Conflict coaching is one of many conflict management tools premised on the fact that conflict is normal and inevitable and provides an opportunity to improve relationships, prevent unnecessary escalation of conflicts, contribute to the overall health and well-being of workplaces, and reduce the costs of ill-managed conflict.  Conflict coaching has many advantages for managers as well as employees.[3]  The one-on-one approach helps to make employees feel valued and appreciated and encourages them to engage more in their own career.[4]

You don’t have to be a professional coach to provide your employee with effective coaching.  But you do need to learn how to take a new approach when she comes for help.

How is conflict coaching different?

Conflict coaching is based on a number of important principles, practices and skills, including a number which focus on the “empowerment” of the person being coached:[5]

  1. The employee is willing to participate
  2. The employee’s self-determination is vital
  3. The employee is the expert in their own life
  4. The coach/manager walks alongside not in front
  5. The employee has the capacity to change the quality of her interactions with others
  6. The process is tailored to the employee’s individual goals and definitions of success
  7. The coach asks, rather than tells, using powerful questions
  8. The coach focuses on the employee’s strengths rather than weaknesses
  9. The coach helps the employee to learn from both failure & success

Just what does employee “empowerment” mean in this context?

You may remember the old saying:  “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Advice-giving or direction is like giving the man the fish.  Coaching is more like teaching the man to fish.  It can lead to increased personal capacity, which in the long run, will save you time and frustration and encourage a healthier workplace.

For many people this approach feels unfamiliar, perhaps even frustrating.  Perhaps you believe that you know the “right” answer and that it would just be quicker to tell your employee what to do!

Coaching, however, asks you to hold back from advice-giving as long as the employee is still learning.  That might take quite a bit of self-control.

Empowerment means primarily inquiring rather than telling.  It means that the coach focuses on asking powerful, probing questions to help the employee set reasonable goals, to dig deeply to discover the answer for herself and then to develop a plan.  This process probably takes a series of meetings over a period of time in order to allow the employee to try things, discuss how it went and make adjustments as needed.

My daughter took a coaching course recently and after about three weeks came to me to express her dismay.  She wanted to become a coach because she felt that she had significant experience and insight that she wanted to share to assist her clients move forward.  The course was encouraging her to hold back on sharing that advice and experience and, instead, use questions to help her client discover insights for themselves.  Initially, she found that very counter-intuitive and frustrating.  However, at the end of the course which involved significant role-play and feedback, she recognized the real benefit of this approach.  She realized that it is actually consistent with her core belief that her clients have it within themselves to handle the conflict or challenge they are facing.  They just need help to access that strength.

Coaching can be a difficult transition for managers.  At first it seems like it takes so much effort and there just isn’t time in the day!

However, if the goal is the employee’s learning and growth (and the overall well-being of the workplace), to do otherwise is to over-function, inhibit learning and create dependence and resentment.

Over-functioning parents create under-functioning children.  Telling (rather than asking) can seriously impede the maturation of kids.  It is the same in the workplace.

Bill Bullard says:[6]

Opinion is really the lowest form of human knowledge.  It requires no accountability, no understanding.  The highest form of knowledge… is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another’s world.  It requires profound purpose-larger-than-the-self kind of understanding.”

If you immediately tell Karen what to do, or explain what you would do in this situation, what are the chances that she will be back again with the same kinds of problems in the future?  Ultimately, you want her to learn how to be an excellent manager so she can resolve conflict in her team directly and model good conflict management skills.

Using conflict coaching

So what would a conflict coaching process look like in this scenario?[7]

Let’s assume you have a good working relationship with Karen (if you don’t, you will probably need to work on that first in order to provide helpful coaching).  During the first meeting, you can focus on asking questions that help Karen to explore the situation such as:

  • What happened? [encourage Karen to articulate what is really on her mind]
  • What does “resistance” from your staff look like?
  • What is your response to those actions?
  • What is the challenge for you arising from all of this?  [encourage Karen to identify what is really important]
  • What do you want to accomplish?  [encourage Karen to set her own goal]

Then consider exploring some deeper explanations for the resistance, including:

  • What arises for you when you feel resistance?  [help her to identify her own reactions, feelings, fears etc.]
  • What might be underlying those responses from your staff?  [help Karen to see the situation from other perspectives]
  • What would be an ideal outcome here?

Finally, encourage Karen to develop some options for moving ahead.  Remember that, usually, Karen will be most likely to follow through with ideas that she has developed herself.

In developing your questions try to keep them open and avoid the “advice in disguise question” i.e. “Have you tried seeking input from your staff before implementing changes?”  This kind of question is a thinly veiled way of suggesting your favoured solution.

Many professional coaches balance client empowerment (questioning) with some advice-giving in appropriate situations.  The trick is not to go to advice or solutions too quickly without first giving the employee a chance to learn the lesson themselves.  Like most new skills, training and practice will assist you in building your own capacity for conflict coaching.  Good luck!

To learn more about conflict coaching, check out Cinnie Noble’s books (footnote 1).  And consider participating in the Queen’s IRC Strategies for Workplace Conflicts course, where you will learn and practice conflict coaching.

About the Author

Kari Boyle

Kari D. Boyle is a conflict engagement practitioner, consultant, trainer and retired lawyer. She served as Executive Director of Mediate BC Society for ten years followed by one year as its Director of Strategic Initiatives. She enjoys using her legal, mediation and management experience to improve citizens’ access to viable and affordable conflict management options in the workplace and beyond. Previously, she practiced corporate commercial litigation in Vancouver for 14 years, worked in-house for 6 years specializing in legal services management, led mediation research initiatives at UBC, and taught conflict resolution as an adjunct professor at UBC Law School. She continues to support system reform and access to justice initiatives. Kari is a facilitator for the Queen’s IRC Strategies for Workplace Conflicts program.

 

 

 

Footnotes


[1] Cinnie Noble, C.M., BSW, LL.B., LL.M. (ADR) is a chartered mediator (C.Med) and professional certified coach (PCC). She is the founder of CINERGY Coaching and the author of two coaching books: Conflict Management Coaching: The CINERGY Model (2011) and Conflict Mastery: Questions to Guide You (2014). Both are available on Amazon.ca. Cinnie’s website (www.cinergycoaching.com) has a great selection of helpful papers and articles.

[2] Taken from Frydman, R. (2015) Conflict Management Coaching in the Workplace. ADR Update Fall 2015. Retrieved February 28, 2019, from  https://www.cinergycoaching.com/wp-content/uls/2015/09/ADR_Update_Newsletter_Fall_2015_Conflict_Management_Coaching_RachelFrydman.pdf

[3]Kelleher-Flight, B. (2012). 7 Advantages of Conflict Resolution Coaching. Retrieved February 28, 2019, from https://gdpconsulting.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/7-advantages-of-conflict-resolution-coaching.pdf .

[4] Maynard, J. (2019, February 12). Four Ways to Provide Individual Attention Like a Coach. Retrieved February 28, 2019, from https://leaderchat.org/2019/02/12/%ef%bb%bf4-ways-to-provide-individual-attention-like-a-coach/.

[5] Noble, C. (2011). Conflict Management Coaching: The CINERGY™ Model. Retrieved March 12, 2019, from: https://www.cinergycoaching.com/conflict-management-coaching-cinergy-model/ Amazon.ca.

[6] Bill Bullard is an American educator and this quote is taken from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/573919-opinion-is-really-the-lowest-form-of-human-knowledge-it .

[7] Obviously, each situation is different and the following questions are only examples of how a coaching conversation might emerge.

 

Dealing with Difficult Behaviours (Rather Than Difficult People)

In the Queen’s IRC Strategies for Workplace Conflicts course, we start by asking participants what they would particularly like help with in their workplace.  A common response is “difficult / high conflict people”.  However you define it, this is a huge challenge in today’s workplace and, unless it is handled well, it takes significant time, energy and expertise away from the work to be done.

Most people have heard about Serena Williams’ public outburst at the U.S. Open this fall.[1] Her behaviour and words were shocking and unexpected.  Does that make her a “difficult” or “high conflict” person?  If so, then how does that change our thinking about the situation and the complex issues that emerged afterwards?

When we encounter these situations in the workplace, it is important to try to avoid the very human desire to label people and move on.  There are better ways to handle things.

The focus of this article is to suggest three key principles:

  1. Start with self-assessment
  2. Focus on the behaviours not the person
  3. Find and use accessible tools and skills to handle these situations effectively

1. Start with self-assessment

Tammy Lenski quotes psychologist Jeffrey Kottler:  “Every person you fight with has many other people in his life with whom he gets along quite well.  You cannot look at a person who seems difficult to you without also looking at yourself.”[2]

It is probably safe to say that the chances that we can actually change another person are pretty low.  So it makes sense that we need to start by examining ourselves.

Because we view the world only through our own eyes, it is often very hard to see how we may have contributed to a situation or to certain difficult behaviours.  Categorization is a cognitive tool to help us assert control and manage uncertainty or complexity.  In some ways, it simplifies our lives to put people in boxes, like calling someone who disagrees with us “difficult”.  We all have blind spots (the things that we don’t know we don’t know) and the minute we label someone we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to identify and learn from our blind spots or to see the situation from the other’s viewpoint.

In addition, if we label we open ourselves up to a variety of implicit biases, most notably:

  • Confirmation bias which causes us to look only for information that supports our original preconception
  • Stereotyping which can lead to “us” and “them” approaches
  • Fundamental attribution error, a bias which causes us to attribute another person’s poor behaviour to a serious personality issue, but attribute our own poor behaviour to a tough context or situation

What is the best way to uncover our blind spots?  Curiosity plus vulnerability (which Brené Brown wisely says also involves great courage).[3]  We need to pause and ask people we trust about the situation and our perceptions. Are they fair, balanced, accurate?

We can also benefit from strengthening our empathy muscle.  More on that below.

2. Focus on the behaviours not the person

I can be very “difficult”.  I remember a time when I was trying to advocate for a very ill family member in the health system.  Looking back, I was probably perceived to be like the proverbial “dog with a bone” because I had a particular question I needed to be answered and none of the experts seemed able to provide an answer in a clear way.  If the experts chose to label me as “difficult” in that situation they would be more likely to dismiss my concerns instead of trying to find out what my underlying issues were and how to resolve them.

Tammy Lenski points out that most of us can be difficult in certain situations or with certain people but that doesn’t merit the label of “difficult person”.[4]  When confronted by difficult behaviour we need to resist the temptation to conclude that someone is crazy, stupid or evil.

I suggest that in conflict, people’s “difficult” behaviours can fall into four broad categories:

  • Upset – anyone can be upset for a wide variety of reasons
  • One off or contextual behaviour seen as difficult – most of us
  • Repeated patterns of difficult behaviour (the group Bill Eddy refers to as “high conflict personalities”) – some of us
  • Personality disorders – a few of us

The fourth category needs training to diagnose, but if it is present, it may be helpful to call in various kinds of skilled support (EAP, counselling, etc.).

Bill Eddy’s reference to “patterns of behaviours” is helpful because it focuses on the behaviour and not on the person.[5]  We need to avoid a quick judgment (e.g. “difficult person”) since our assumptions may hide helpful information.  There may be something else going on.  Sometimes they are people who are being scapegoated.  Sometimes they are raising important issues that the organization needs to hear but would rather avoid.

Research confirms that the most successful teams (and organizations) have high levels of “psychological safety”, which means a culture which actively fosters the belief that one will not be criticized, rejected or punished for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.[6]

Further, Amy Edmonson (Harvard Business School) found that:

“.. the best employees for promoting organizational learning are often those who never leave well enough alone, pointing out mistakes and flawed practices. But those who management rates as top performers are often those who silently do what they’re told and what has always been done—and don’t annoy their superiors with complaints and questions about flawed practices.”[7]

In a setting with low psychological safety, it is likely that the employee who “never leaves well enough alone” will be labeled as “difficult” and his or her input will be discounted or ignored.  This result could be an enormous loss to the organization.  How can we continue to value the person and their input, and focus on addressing any inappropriate behaviour in a healthy way?

Professor Julie Macfarlane commented on the Serena Williams scenario:  “What I am trying to point out is that Serena shows us how easily and quickly we buy into a demonized evaluation of someone and their behaviour.[8]  The tennis court is Serena’s workplace.  Did this situation involve a clear pattern of behaviour or was this a one-off unfortunate event?  Many people were quick to judge her and some of the comments have the hint of confirmation bias working behind the scenes.  In the middle of her tirade she was trying to make a point about important issues at least worth talking about.  I’m not saying her behaviour was acceptable.  It wasn’t.  But it is easier to dismiss or ignore what she was trying to communicate if we label her as a “difficult person”.

3. Find and use accessible tools and skills to handle these situations effectively

After doing our self-assessment and considering the nature of the behaviour, what do we DO to deal with a person’s difficult patterns of behaviour in the workplace?  This is where our empathy muscle comes in handy.  Some people in the workplace who create or participate in patterns of difficult behaviour:[9]

  • Experience conflict as part of who they are. It’s a life-long personality pattern of thinking, feeling, and acting.
  • May be starved for empathy, attention and respect
  • May have alienated everyone around them
  • Are used to being rejected, disrespected and ignored
  • May use conflict as a way to get attention – even negative attention is better than none at all
  • Tend to attack those closest to them or those in authority
  • Are usually incapable of logical talk about or insight into themselves or others
  • Have trouble feeling empathy
  • Tend to blame others (Brené Brown describes blaming as our brain’s way of discharging pain or anger and avoiding accountability[10])

Knowing this, I feel compassion for people whose patterns of behaviours eventually sabotage their own happiness in inexplicable ways.  They can end up very lonely people since they push everyone away, even those who are very caring and want to help.

Bill Eddy advocates for starting with curiosity and then developing and communicating empathy, attention and respect.  Curiosity and active listening help us to avoid snap judgments and implicit biases and can improve psychological safety.  Empathy can lead us to different responses that can have a profound influence on how we deal with the behaviours.

These approaches seem, at first, counter-intuitive when we see the impact of difficult behaviour on the people we work with.  But remember that if we start with punishment, we may just be feeding that person’s need for attention rather than helping to shift the behaviours.

There are effective tools, skills and training available to help you navigate difficult behaviours.  I highly recommend both Bill Eddy’s High Conflict Institute[11] and Tammy Lenski’s website, podcast and blog.[12]  Both provide very valuable resources on this topic.  I have found that knowledge alone is not enough.  We need to learn skills that take practice to master.  I encourage you to seek out training and you will see a difference.

The good news?  These skills are useful with everyone – not just those exhibiting difficult behaviours.  Bonus.

Join us at the Queen’s IRC Strategies for Workplace Conflicts program to learn more about dealing with difficult behaviours and many other things.

 

About the Author

Kari Boyle

Kari D. Boyle is a conflict engagement practitioner, consultant, trainer and retired lawyer. She served as Executive Director of Mediate BC Society for ten years followed by one year as its Director of Strategic Initiatives. She enjoys using her legal, mediation and management experience to improve citizens’ access to viable and affordable conflict management options in the workplace and beyond. Previously, she practiced corporate commercial litigation in Vancouver for 14 years, worked in-house for 6 years specializing in legal services management, led mediation research initiatives at UBC, served as an adjunct professor at UBC Law School and provided support to the Civil Justice Reform Working Group and the initiative to create a new set of Supreme Court Civil Rules in British Columbia. She is currently the Coordinator of the BC Family Justice Innovation Lab, a member of the Access to Justice BC Leadership Group.

Kari is a facilitator with the Queen’s IRC Strategies for Workplace Conflicts program.

 

Footnotes


[1] ESPN. (2018, September 08). 2018 US Open Highlights: Serena Williams’ dispute overshadows Naomi Osaka’s final win | ESPN. Retrieved October 1, 2018, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uiBrForlj-k

[2] Lenski, T. (2017, December 04). How to deal with difficult people: A mediator’s strategy. Retrieved October 1, 2018, from https://lenski.com/how-to-deal-with-difficult-people/

[3] Brown, B. (n.d.). The power of vulnerability. Retrieved September 28, 2018, from https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability

[4] Lenski, T. (2017, December 04). How to deal with difficult people: A mediator’s strategy. Retrieved October 1, 2018, from https://lenski.com/how-to-deal-with-difficult-people/

[5] Eddy, B. (n.d.). Who Are High Conflict People? Retrieved October 1, 2018, from https://www.highconflictinstitute.com/who-are-high-conflict-people/

[6] Lewis, A. R. (2018, June 28). The Two Traits of the Best Problem-Solving Teams. Retrieved October 1, 2018, from https://hbr.org/2018/04/the-two-traits-of-the-best-problem-solving-teams

[7] Sutton, R. I. (2018, August 13). How Bosses Waste Their Employees’ Time. Retrieved October 1, 2018, from https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-bosses-waste-their-employees-time-1534126140

[8] Macfarlane, J. (2018, September 10). Crazy, Uncontrolled, Bad: How Serena Williams was Punished. Retrieved October 1, 2018, from https://representingyourselfcanada.com/crazy-uncontrolled-bad-how-serena-williams-was-punished/

[9] Eddy, B. (n.d.). Who Are High Conflict People? Retrieved October 1, 2018, from https://www.highconflictinstitute.com/who-are-high-conflict-people/

[10] Hurlock, H. (2018, June 05). Two Lessons on Blame from Brené Brown. Retrieved from https://www.mindful.org/two-lessons-on-blame-from-brene-brown

[11] High Conflict Institute. (n.d.). Retrieved October 1, 2018, from http://www.highconflictinstitute.com/

[12] Lenski, T. (n.d.). Retrieved October 1, 2018, from http://www.lenski.com/

5 Benefits of Workplace Conflict

It may seem like an oxymoron to have the words “benefit” and “conflict” in the same sentence. Our workplaces today often involve varying levels of interpersonal and institutional conflict and so much energy is devoted to prevention and management it is understandably difficult to understand how conflict could possibly have a positive side!

It helps to remember that conflict (including disagreement, difference of opinion, concern, complaint, friction, etc.) is not inherently good or bad.1  It is an inevitable result of human beings associating with each other in the world, in our families and in our workplaces.  There are many articles and blog posts trumpeting the “benefits of conflict” but, on reflection, this phrase is much too simplistic.  It is not the conflict that directly creates benefits, it is dealing with the conflict well.2 The key to unlocking the benefits of conflict is learning to engage effectively with conflict when it arises.

I have learned much about conflict and conflict engagement from Bernie Mayer. In his Queen’s IRC article The Paradox of Leadership: Cooperating to Compete, Following to Lead 3, he emphasizes that how we “set the stage for the effective use of conflict and how we respond to conflict is critical to our effectiveness as leaders”.  This is a leadership competency and these skills are becoming more and more in demand.  We can’t deny, avoid or prevent all conflict. So what can we, as leaders, do?  Bernie suggests what to some may be a revolutionary concept:

The more important challenge is to create the space for conflict to occur in a constructive way for people to raise difficult and contentious issues, and for leaders to be exposed to often uncomfortable disagreements.  Otherwise, problems fester, important views are squelched and effective communication is inhibited.

So there are good reasons NOT to allow conflict to fester, but what are the potential positive benefits that could flow from providing such a safe space for conflict to occur?

My research and experience has revealed many benefits from engaging well with conflict. Five of the most important benefits which relate to workplace conflict are:

1. Earlier Problem Identification

Workplace conflict can shine a light on deeper problems that need to be addressed.  Even the most seemingly trivial disagreements might stem from underlying unaddressed issues that, if not addressed, are likely to fester and then explode down the road.  Thoughtful managers can watch for patterns in the workplace and engage early with the involved staff before the workplace is disrupted by a full-fledged conflict.

Similarly, conflict can identify practices and processes that need to be improved or replaced.

2. Better Problem-Solving

The best ideas and solutions flow from healthy discussions involving a diversity of perspectives.4 But this goal can be difficult to attain.  It is challenging when our work colleagues disagree with our opinions or suggestions.  Different viewpoints can sometimes result in friction or even outright conflict.  Sometimes one or two voices tend to dominate discussions in the workplace leaving others without real opportunities to express their views at all.  These dynamics can lead to disengagement, poor buy-in and less than optimal solutions.

If staff members can learn to engage with these kinds of conflicts in constructive ways, then disagreements are not only normalized but can be seen to be an important piece of joint problem-solving.  If everyone feels comfortable expressing their views, more ideas are generated and differences of opinion become opportunities to hone and improve ideas into workable solutions.  These are critical life skills which can be applied in the workplace and beyond.  In addition, conflict engagement is an important leadership skill and employees who seek training and experience in this area may have better chances for advancement within the organization.

3. Healthy Relationships, Morale and Commitment

Conflict that is denied, avoided, suppressed or handled ineffectively can harm relationships.  Human beings can form inaccurate assumptions about the intentions of others which, unless surfaced and examined, can undermine important working relationships.  On the other hand, if staff feel comfortable raising differing views, concerns or complaints and they see that these are heard and respected by their peers and management then their relationships with each other and with the organization can be strengthened.

In one organization I was involved in, some members of a critical stakeholder group felt disenfranchised by a decision made by the organization that they argued didn’t take that group’s interests into account.  While initially denying their concerns and escalating the conflict, the organization was able to pivot by expressing willingness to participate in an open dialogue about the issues.  Three well-facilitated circle processes were held and were well attended. Participants reported that they felt their concerns were heard and respected.  The organization benefited from the healthy dialogue and relationships were strengthened.

4. Improved Productivity

There will likely be an investment of time and energy at the outset to prepare individuals and teams to recognize and engage well with various kinds of workplace conflict.  However, conflict that is handled well will free up people to focus on their jobs rather than tensions in the office which will lead to higher productivity, efficiency and effectiveness.

The most successful teams involve a diversity of backgrounds and approaches.  By virtue of their training and experience, many lawyers are “black hat thinkers” who tend to focus on risk and possible negative outcomes.  When we are trying to change things or encourage innovation and creativity this approach can be annoying.  Some team members may dislike having their ideas challenged in this way, which can cause discord.  However, a well-functioning team with training in effective conflict engagement can benefit from rigorous black hat and other types of thinking in order to hone and improve its ideas.

5. Personal Growth and Insight

Conflictual situations can help us to learn more about ourselves and others.  There is nothing like a difficult disagreement to reveal not only what we care about, but also our default approaches and reactions.  We may not always show up as our “best selves” when in the midst of a heated discussion or when confronted by stinging criticism.  However, in each of these situations, if we are open to it, then there is likely to be an important insight about ourselves that is worthy of learning.  Self-awareness is the first step to managing ourselves better in the future.

We can learn about our work colleagues in the midst of conflict.  It may be helpful to know, in advance, how they react in certain situations and to take that information into account when we are working with them in the future.

If I look back on my life so far, I realize that much of my greatest learning came not from those moments of peace and tranquility (although they were lovely!) but from experiences of conflict with others, including colleagues in the workplace.  By reflecting on those experiences I have realized that my personality (or perhaps my legal training) led me to be defensive and unaware of my many blind spots.  Self-awareness then led me to a determination to unlearn some responses and to nurture other (more healthy) approaches.  I am still a work in process but I am grateful for those difficult conflictual experiences.

Conflict is hard.  Imagine rather than expending our energy and time avoiding or “preventing” conflict, you, your team or your organization could welcome conflict, knowing that you have the tools and skills to harness multiple benefits from engaging with conflict well.  The good news is that these skills can be learned and, if you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to seek out training to support your efforts.  You will not be sorry.

 

About the Author

Kari Boyle

Kari Boyle is a conflict management practitioner, mediator, trainer consultant and retired lawyer.  She served as Executive Director of Mediate BC Society for ten years followed by one year as its Director of Strategic Initiatives.  She has a particular interest in effective conflict engagement, access to justice and system change and recently completed her term as Project Manager for Mediate BC’s “Family Unbundled Legal Services Project”. She is currently Coordinator of the BC Family Justice Innovation Lab, a member of the Access to Justice BC Leadership group and a Board member of the Courthouse Library Society of BC.

Kari was also a facilitator for the Queen’s IRC Strategies for Workplace Conflicts program.

 

 

Footnotes

1  With the exception of conflict resulting from behaviour which is violent or abusive.

2  The opposite is also true: conflict can be harmful if it is not dealt with effectively.  “Dealing well with conflict” will look different in each situation.  Sometimes it means helping the parties to reach a full resolution; sometimes it is necessary to escalate a conflict in order to make important social change. A boycott, protest or strike is an example of this dynamic.

3 Mayer, B. (2016). The Paradox of Leadership: Cooperating to Compete, Following to Lead. Queen’s University IRC.  Retrieved November 15, 2017 from https://irc.queensu.ca/the-paradox-of-leadership-cooperating-to-compete-following-to-lead/ 

4 Rock, D. & Grant, H. (2016, November 4). Why Diverse Teams are Smarter. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved November 15, 2017, from https://hbr.org/2016/11/why-diverse-teams-are-smarter.

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