Insights on Why We Struggle to Contain Conflict and How to do it Better
One of the ways I tend to think about conflict in the workplace is like a depth charge: there may be multiple smallish ripples or perhaps one huge, terrifying explosion beneath your feet. Either way, it is destabilising and probably going to have an impact on your relationships (professional and/or personal), daily habits, patterns of communications etc.
Here’s three reasons why I believe most of us struggle to contain the effects of conflict upon our mental health:
Delay: Research shows that most of us would rather put off our problems than face them head on, according to noted psychotherapist Dr. M Scott Peck, and this avoidance often leads to poorer wellbeing than facing problems in the first place. And this goes for people supporting those in conflict as much as the parties themselves! Peck argues that in order for us to overcome challenges, we first need to acknowledge and commit to working on them. This inevitably requires courage, clarity and a resolve to interrogate feelings that may be painful and scary.
Lacking skills: Largely as a result of our tendency to avoid confronting problems, many of us generally don’t seize the opportunities to learn from past conflicts, and therefore are less prepared to navigate our way through current or future disputes
Formal: People tend to follow the intuitive as opposed to counter-intuitive approach for dealing with workplace conflict: go with the prescribed and seemingly more efficient and safe formal procedure offered by HR, than daring to sit down and have a tough yet beneficial conversation
Two cases in particular come to mind:
Firstly, an experienced project manager working in local government who submitted a grievance against a very senior, high profile board member involving allegations of unprofessional behaviour. During this time their contact was limited to occasionally passing each other silently in the corridor. One year later this project manager put in a second grievance, this time against their organisation on account of how long it had taken to resolve the first grievance! Another six months then passed before mediation was offered, and a further two months before this mediation took place.
The second case involved a highly qualified key worker who worked closely with sick children. He had submitted a grievance against his manager on account of not being given sufficient shifts in preferred locations, and felt hat this amounted to unfair treatment. He then cut off all contact until the formal process had been completed. During the mediation it became clear that this person was also the primary carer for their disabled child in a home where English was not the first language. Furthermore, he had been fast tracked into his current role without proper due processes nor had his organisation either devised a pastoral care plan to support his pre-existing mental health conditions.
Plenty of Similarities
In both cases there were similarities that I would argue made it harder for the parties to support their own mental health during these disputes:
Both parties had immediately elected to pursue a formal grievance process (following the advice they had been given by HR)
They chose to withdraw from all interaction with the other person, no matter how small. That is not to say that this approach was wrong – one always has the right to keep one’s distance. However, arguably, maintaining at least limited interaction could help get the ‘communication wheel’ turning again and thus lay the groundwork for working through the issues being disputed
Both parties suffered from arguably unnecessary delays by HR that increased levels of uncertainty and prolonged periods of zero engagement - thus further hardening the parties’ positions
Intense family caring responsibilities exacerbated tiredness, isolation and stress experienced by the parties
Neither party appeared to receive much in the way of pastoral support from their respective organisations, aside from the offer of referral to occupational health
Choice Tips on How You and Your Organisation Can Protect Your Mental Health During Conflict
Of course this is case dependent, but continue seeking opportunities for informal, human engagement with the other person or people. For example, offer to make them a cup of tea, or ask them about their weekend. Seemingly insignificant yet personal moments like these keep the channel of communication open, which is key if you’re going to have a change of resolving your conflict meaningfully. Alternatively, if your role is to support parties in conflict, then encourage them to continue to interact even when it is really tough and unless there are compelling reasons not to (FYI it is less important what the content is than the act of reaching out to the other).
Seize the courage to pursue an informal path to resolution i.e. a facilitated conversation sooner rather than later. This may feel counterintuitive and risky given the apparent security of the formal alternative. However, do not be fooled. Formal processes tend to take longer, be subject to delays and suck all ‘humanness’ out of the relationship – if it felt difficult before to engage positively with the other person, chances are it’ll be even harder once it’s over. Also, the longer the conflict endures (keep thinking of those depth charge ripples...), the harder it’ll be to maintain your resilience and wellbeing
For organisations, ensure your HR and/or ER team are trained and aware of the signs to be watching out for and also know to ask simple, curious questions regarding someone’s mental health. For example, “how are you feeling in yourself? How are you sleeping? Are you noticing any behaviours or habits that may be changing as a result of being in the conflict zone?” Simple questions that often remain unasked due to awkwardness about how to provide effective support
Remember that conflict doesn’t happen in isolation. It often exacerbates other difficult issues, such as caring for vulnerably family members, and can therefore compound pre-existing mental health issues
Organisations should assume that mental health will be a factor during conflict resolution and therefore have resources ready to deploy as needed. For example, a counselling service, resilience training and/or conflict coaching, as well as simply checking in with parties on a regular basis
These choice tips may seem obvious or simple, but if every person in dispute, and every organisation that supports them, were to follow these then much would be achieved in protecting mental health in the workplace. Much can be achieved by small, simple steps.
This article featured on the Mad World Mental Health online digest on 19th April 2020