Queen's University IRC

In Conversation with Bernard Mayer

An Interview with Bernard Mayer, Queen’s IRC Facilitator
Interviewed by Queen’s IRC

September 1, 2007

How can organizational leaders help to create healthy, conflict-friendly workplaces? Bernard Mayer, a Queen’s IRC Facilitator who is an international expert in conflict resolution and mediation, shares insights for managers in the following Q & A.

What is a ‘conflict-friendly’ environment?

The key here is to acknowledge that organizations, communities and relationships need conflict. It is naïve to think there will be no conflict where there are different needs and values. These are not superficial things, and as a result, we will have conflict.

Whether an organization is healthy isn’t related to whether there is conflict, but to how it is handled. A healthy organization welcomes genuine conflict, makes it easy for people to raise issues, has an environment that encourages this, and promotes a constructive response.

So people can safely, powerfully, consistently and directly raise issues. Conflict is also not prematurely referred to an impersonal bureaucratic process; nor is anyone made a scapegoat for the problem.

In other words, a conflict-friendly organization accepts the importance of the conflict process.

What are the most common ways organizations avoid conflict?

Organizations are enormously creative, as are individuals, at avoiding conflict. But there are four general ways that are the most common.

One way is simply denial and minimalization. That’s whenever someone raises a conflict and you say, ‘It’s just few malcontents,’ or ‘It’s not that big a deal.’

The second way organizations deal with conflict is they misdirect. They don’t deal with it directly and openly: they bureaucratize, refer it to a subcommittee or person far from the real issue, they scapegoat, or they immediately relate to it as a legal issue rather than a problem to be solved.

The third major way is using escalation as a means of conflict avoidance. Sometimes people are threatened with punitive consequences, or a boss gets really angry. The purpose is not to raise the issue so it can be constructively dealt with; it is to inhibit people from raising issues.

Fourth is premature problem-solving, or solving the wrong issues.

Think about sexual harassment a moment. It is a common problem in many workplaces, subject to great deal of denial. We individualize it. People are intimidated about raising the issue and are often victimized if they do.

Also what often happens is that people throw procedures into place that are supposed to deal with it. But they ignore the underlying culture of the workplace and the gender politics of the workplace that create an environment allowing it to go on.

Maybe what’s needed is a process of employee training, raising consciousness, changing the culture. But the fact is that far too often we rush to resolve the problem rather than staying with it a while, trying to really understand what people are concerned about.

How do we learn to handle conflict in way that benefits our organizations?

I’m not big on giving people prescriptions, but there are certain things we know make a difference.

The very first thing is to accept conflict as inevitable and healthy.

The second is to listen, to try to understand on a deeper level. It’s the most important thing we can do around conflict. Listen to what people saying, not judgmentally, but to try and understand. You don’t have to like what they are saying, but you can start by trying to understand.

Managers are often guilty of saying immediately how they are going to fix something without really spending time to understand and connect with the person. I suggest they try taking the attitude “My job is to understand; later I can come up with solutions.”

I also suggest three words that are almost always useful: “Tell me more.” Part of it is in the spirit you convey: of curiosity, of wanting to know, of wanting to understand, of not necessarily having answers all the time but taking it seriously.

A third skill is to learn to say what important to us, what we think and what we need, in a powerful way – but one that doesn’t shut others down, or seek to do that.

We also need to become good at coming up with forums for discussion and interaction around issues, and problem-solving where appropriate.

Another skill is knowing when to ask for help; where to go to ask for help; and developing organizational capacity to provide help.

For some reason we are perfectly willing to ask for help from legal, financial, public relations, even technical HR experts, but we are really reluctant to ask for help with the relational issues that are really key to what makes a successful workplace.

People often file grievances because they don’t know how to deal directly with a problem or issue and they aren’t provided coaching, training, or the forums to directly talk about it. Then you go file the grievance, and often the first step is to talk directly with someone, and you are provided no help in doing that – even though it could really make a difference.

Often the stuff that’s most difficult in dealing with human relationships is the simplest. For example, how do you listen to someone who you are furious with?

How do you manage it?

I’ve been teaching this stuff for 30 years, and frankly, I don’t always do it very well.

The very first part is you take care of yourself. Take a moment to get clear, have someone hear you and get some sort of affirmation, understanding, before you try to deal with things directly, if you possibly can.

If you can’t, it is one of these walk-on situations, you breathe, do whatever it takes to centre yourself.

The second thing is to become clear why you are angry and upset, then work on stating that as clearly and forcefully as you can. But say it in the way that you’d want other people to if they had those thoughts, feelings and concerns about you.

It is the opposite of being nicey-nice, which is one way of avoiding conflict. It is about being powerful in raising issues clearly and respectfully at the same time.

I believe when we are at our best we all can do this. The biggest problem is we’re afraid that we can’t, so we avoid things in a way that ultimately makes them worse.

It is hard. You can’t just wave a wand and make it happen the way you would like, but you can at least realize it is something you can become better at.

What happens when organizations avoid conflict?

I see this lot. Rather than confront a problem, especially when a powerful employee is involved, people restructure things in all sorts of ways. In one hospital there was a doctor who was a skilled specialist, upon whom they depended. I was asked to come in and provide conflict resolution training to the staff.

Why? This doctor was behaving inappropriately. He was abusive to nurses, colleagues, and probably to patients as well. Instead of saying ‘Help us figure out how to deal with this doctor,’ they said ‘Give conflict training to all of us.’ I think this happens all the time.

Of course the doctor was going to take it too – and this one-day experience was supposed to change his personality. What happens in these circumstances is the behaviour continues, morale goes down, and key people leave. People avoid dealing with issues directly and the problem gets larger.

In what kind of situations is escalation often used to avoid conflict?

A good example is what has happens with efforts to deal with medical employees with alcohol or substance abuse problems. The first approach often is to deny the problem until something happens – and that something is often very bad. Then the next approach is to get very punitive and demanding, and to set up elaborate monitoring procedures. That doesn’t work very well either. It sets a standard and a norm at least, which is a good thing. But it doesn’t directly address the roots of the conflict.

What happens in a conflict-friendly organization?

People deal with conflict openly, directly and forthrightly. They say, ‘We have a problem here; let’s just talk about it.’

One example was a large organization that had been through some very ferocious strikes. What had happened was not good for anybody, and prior to the next collective bargaining round, I was approached by both union and management to work with them.

I’ve done this a number of times. Without all the games people play in collective bargaining, I helped them find ways of saying in a safe, direct, unfettered way what they really thought about what had happened. We talked about how relationships were going, and cleared the air.

We also discussed how they were going to deal with the next round of bargaining, and what would happen when the necessary dynamics of bargaining made everyone feel pissed off at one another again. How were they going to deal with this? It made an enormous difference.

How does unresolved conflict drain an organization’s resources?

Avoiding conflict, not dealing with issues, and not creating an environment where conflict can be raised costs organizations billions of dollars a year.

The biggest pitfall is to avoid dealing with issues. A second big problem involves solving the wrong problem. It happens all the time. The worst is when people go through a whole strategic planning and restructuring and process to avoid dealing with a problem employee.

Many businesses go down the tubes. Why do most mergers and acquisitions fail? Not because the business plan was bad necessarily, but because people didn’t take into account all the different conflicts that inevitably arise when you take two different cultures and organizational styles and put them together.

The price of not creating a conflict-friendly environment is high.

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