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Managing Conflict in the 'New Normal'

Boxing gloves on floor

Why organizations need to be more courageous about how they handle people issues in a post-COVID world

The latest economic figures are sobering. Many predict that we are facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Frost of 1709.

HR, unions and managers (the modern Triumvirate as I nobly refer to them), are busy leading the way in preparing their organizations for the post-pandemic recovery. They are facilitating the shift from a public health crisis to a looming economic and climate crisis.

Everyone is agreed that flexible working, person-centered leadership practices and agile management systems are central to the post-pandemic recovery. But what does this all mean when many organizations are still closed and many more are facing an existential threat to their businesses and business models? How can organizations adopt a person-centered and values-based approach, when the focus will be on survival and the challenges appear to be so great and potentially insurmountable?

People, Performance and Engagement

NHS and key workers were on the front line during the pandemic. Their work was inspiring and the sense of appreciation from across our society was moving and powerful. Every Thursday evening, we stood on our doorsteps, we clapped, and we banged on saucepans to salute NHS (National Health Service) and key workers who were working selflessly and tirelessly to keep us safe, fed and cared for.

That is why it was so hard to see the delays getting PPE to the front line, leaving many unprotected and vulnerable.

As we leave the public health crisis (for now at least) and face the prospect of an economic and climate crisis, our leaders and managers will form the new front line. The question is, are they able to withstand everything that is about to be thrown at them?

One thing is for certain, UK management enters into this new normal with a pretty poor track record when it comes to measures such as wellbeing, engagement, productivity, diversity and conflict resolution.

I’m not blaming managers here; we simply do not invest in our managers and leaders to the levels that they need. My experience has taught me that organizations don’t really consider how the role of their leaders and managers will impact on the people that they lead and manage. Technical skills still trump people skills, IQ still trumps EQ, bureaucracy still trumps simplicity, and a desire for retribution still trumps a desire for learning.

This time has highlighted how our managers need to be skilled in putting people first. People, Performance and Engagement is the PPE organizations need for the post-pandemic recovery and unfortunately, it is in short supply. Only by equipping our leaders and managers with this new form of PPE can they possibly hope to manage the challenges that lay ahead. And perhaps one of the most challenging issues that will test the mettle for our leaders and managers, is the management of conflict.

Managing conflict in the 'new normal'

The management of conflicts, bullying, disputes, disagreements, quarrels, feuds (call it what you will), has perplexed human resources professionals, line managers, employee reps and organizational leaders for many years.

Unresolved conflict at work can do great damage in organizations, sometimes without ever being directly addressed. For those involved, directly or indirectly, conflict can generate untold amounts of fear, stress isolation and anxiety. High profile cases have demonstrated that employee’s mental health is affected and in the most serious cases, people have been known to take their own lives. In the NHS, increasing levels of data are suggesting a direct relationship between incivility in the workplace and patient mortality [https://qualitysafety.bmj.com/content/28/9/750.full].

The potential causes and sources of conflict in the 'new normal' are vast. Here are just three of the factors causing strife at work right now:

  • Remote work leading to a loss of team spirit and a breakdown in communications.
  • Perceptions of unfairness, leading to a breakdown in trust as employees and managers are being moved off furlough at different rates.
  • Underlying stress and trauma leading to irrational responses to situations and a rapid escalation of disagreements into full-blown disputes. 

To spot, prevent and resolve these conflicts, we all need to embrace a 'new normal' comprising of conflict competence, emotional intelligence, and dialogue. The ability to handle conflict constructively, to value other viewpoints, to be empathetic and self-aware and to listen and hear from people we disagree with, are vital skills for managing conflict as we move beyond the coronavirus crisis.

These skills are not rocket science and they can have a major and lasting impact. The challenge is that these skills often exist in opposition to a rigid, divisive, risk-averse and bureaucratic HR policy framework.

The HR paradox - we can all see it, why can't you?

The paradox that haunts many an employee is that the very HR policies designed to resolve workplace issues make them a lot worse. The traditional HR policies, processes and procedures offer a blunt instrument for managing conflict at work. They are binary and reductive, believing that there must right or wrong and a winner and a loser in every case. There are no shades of grey, in fact, they provide a mirage of justice and an illusion of fairness.

The reality of what I call the GBH processes (grievance, bullying, harassment) and disciplinary procedures is that they perpetuate a negative, damaging, and corrosive tone within workplaces. They undermine trust, infantilize the workforce, sow the seeds of division, impede creativity and hurt people.

It is like walking up to an individual exhibiting signs of stress and distress, pouring a bucket of cortisol over their heads, and then yelling at them for not being more rational. This is not a great way to resolve problems at work.

Developing clear behavioural and resolution frameworks

This crisis has shown us that people can be trusted to get on with their jobs, are loyal to their employers and show flexibility, resilience, and dedication if they are trusted and given the freedom to flourish.

As such, companies should simplify their rules and processes so that they align with three simple principles:

  • Do no harm
  • Follow our values
  • Operate within the law

Organizations need to develop and agree on behavioural frameworks that are aligned to their core values. These frameworks should clarify the aligned and the misaligned behaviours that they expect (or don’t expect) from their managers and employees.

Employees, managers, and others should then be equipped with the skills, the support, and the resources that they need to hold themselves and each other to account. Shifting from blame and retribution to dialogue and transformation.

Managers and leaders should be trained in the key skills that they need to create psychological safety in the workplace; positive psychology, nudge theory, principled negotiation, nonviolent communication (NVC) and some basic transactional analysis skills. These are not 'soft skills' by the way, these are the vital skills that our managers and leaders will require to excel in the ‘new normal’.

From grievance to resolution

Finally, the modern Triumvirate (HR, unions, and managers) should collaborate to reframe their divisive GBH and disciplinary policies. The whole process should be repurposed with emphasis on the early resolution between the parties with supported resolution processes including mediation, restorative conversations, coaching and mentoring – a Resolution Framework.

I have worked with major hospitals, banks, insurance firms, universities and councils to help them develop an overarching Resolution Framework which replaces their Discipline and Grievance Procedures. These organizations are ready for the new normal and they are equipping their people with the PPE they need to face the uncertain times ahead.

Good for them, I stand on my metaphorical doorstep and salute their efforts. Now, where’s my saucepan?