The keys to ending interpersonal conflict

Tips for restoring professionalism and psychological safety at work

Following yet another leadership spill that saw the overthrow of Australia’s recent Prime Minister, the subject of handling conflict at work is clearly uppermost in the minds of people leaders at all levels and sectors of organisation. What can we do to de-escalate conflict before things come to a head?

People who are locked in conflict will often struggle to focus on and possibly even control their behaviours. Behavioural standards required can slip quickly and professionalism often goes out the window. The results? Decreased productivity, reputational damage, increased risks of complaints as well as the potential for costly fines and legal claims.

Restoring functionality and professionalism, reducing psychological risks and helping get productivity back on track are some of the key objectives of a well-positioned conflict resolution process. It can help to name some very specific action items that will make it easier for people who have been in conflict with each other to step up and get their behaviours back on track.   

Another benefit to helping de-escalate conflict between team members is that de-escalation can be a great precursor to rapid reductions in the fear and anger levels experienced by people who have locked horns with each other and become absorbed in the fight or flight response that most people experience when feeling under threat. By reducing fear and anger levels, you can help team members to become level headed about their situation and to build upon their capacities to think more logically, and for many people this can help them to get their behaviours “under control” again.

Restoration of behaviours that demonstrate professionalism is a crucial step towards reinforcing psychological safety and is a helpful pathway to enabling people to function well in their roles beyond the resolution of their conflict situation.

Factors that help restore professionalism

Professionalism depends on behaviours that demonstrate a number of common, universal values that are helpful to observe at work. Most people would agree that among these, respectaccountability and empathy are particularly important for the healthy functioning of teams. 

i. Respect

It is often surprising how far the “little things” can go in terms of restoration of respect in otherwise damaged relationships. By the time people reach the pointy end of workplace conflict, respect has often diminished. So, it can be helpful to begin with a basic list of “non-negotiables” that, as an employer or manager, you can ask your team members to observe irrespective of individual personalities and working relationship histories. Quite simply, the message is: “you don’t have the luxury nor the discretion to skip the niceties”. One particularly effective manager recently told me that she makes it clear to her team members that “demonstrating respectful behaviours is an implied term and condition of your employment in my team”.   

Some of the most common helpful examples of respectful behaviours at work that can form part of the descriptive in a conflict resolution process (and to which individuals may be held to account) include:

  • saying good morning, hello and good night (I’m often amazed as to how quickly people let these things slide when they’re feeling disgruntled)
  • saying please and thank you
  • including one another in group communications
  • listening actively when the other person is speaking (it can be helpful to provide team members with examples of what this looks like in action and ask them to commit to demonstrating these behaviours at least once a day)
  • communicating using assertive, respectful language and raising concerns early (for instance, instead of bottling up or using aggressive language, opting for “I feel uncomfortable about…” or “I felt unheard when….”)
  • raising concerns directly and in a polite manner (in a future article, I will provide some tips on helping people to adopt the basics of assertive, respectful language and to tolerate occasional discomfort as a necessary part of working with people). 

ii. Accountability

Examples of workplace accountability in action include:

  • doing what you say you’re going to do and keeping your promises (this also meets the definition of integrity)
  • performing the required functions of your role (it is surprising how many times in mediations I have seen one or both parties aggrieved because they believe the other has shirked his or her own job responsibilities to the detriment of the other person or the broader team)
  • showing up on time, every time, for meetings
  • responding to direct (not cc’d) emails in a timely manner
  • doing the right thing and respecting your organisation’s own unique values.

iii. Empathy

Examples of empathy in action include:

  • using reflective listening and paraphrasing; in addition to enabling increased empathy, paraphrasing also helps ensure that messages being communicated are also heard correctly and there are no misunderstandings 
  • looking for opportunities to actively demonstrate appreciation; this could include inviting team members to “be on the look out” for positive things that their colleagues are doing and achieving and taking opportunities to comment or thank them
  • recognising that while there have been differences, the other person also has their own strengths
  • acknowledging any impacts that the individual’s behaviours may have had on the other person’s feelings (paraphrasing can help with this, as it often requires the listener to imagine themselves in the other person’s shoes and to describe what it is that they see and how that must have felt to the other person)
  • assuming the best and giving the other person the benefit of any doubts about their intentions
  • being prepared to say sorry, and to mean it
  • being prepared to forgive, and to mean it.

Promoting psychological safety

Psychological safety is present when an individual in a workplace is “able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career”¹. Research demonstrates that there are numerous factors present within psychologically safe environments, many of which provide important clues as to the strategies that you may pursue as a manager to build conflict resilience into your working environment and approach to people leadership. A non-exhaustive shopping list for managers seeking to address broader sources of conflict while helping to build upon productivity include:

  • collaboration and ‘win-win’ (or “we don’t do win-lose in our team”)²
  • build upon practical application of humanistic values (including deep respect for the individual including their vulnerabilities)³
  • replace ‘right-wrong’ language with curiosity and love of learning⁴
  • promote active listening including through paraphrasing⁵
  • ensure individuals are treated in a like manner⁶
  • promote diversity and inclusion⁷
  • build awareness to help overcome negative impacts of unconscious bias
  • do not tolerate behaviours that put individuals at risk
  • track and measure psychological safety through regular team member reviews (asking questions that promote the sharing of open and honest feedback).

For further advice and information on programs to help reduce risks and build upon psychological safety in your workplace, please contact En Masse: enquiries@enmasse.com.au

© Copyright 2018. En Masse Pty Ltd.

 References

  1. Kahn, William A. (1990-12-01). "Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work"Academy of Management Journal33 (4): 692–724.
  2. Research conducted across workplaces in Canada shows approximately 60% of managers found dealing with conflict was one of the most stressful components to their roles: Ipsos Reid 2012. Psychological health and safety at work.
  3. Adapted from findings and research reported in Getting under the Skin of Workplace Conflict: Tracing the Experiences of Employees, Survey Report, April 2015 CIPD (UK).
  4. “5 Signs that You’re Dealing with a Passive Aggressive Person”, Psychology Today, Nov 2016, available at https://www.psychologytoday. com/blog/the-superhuman-mind/201611/5-signs-youre-dealing-passive-aggressive-person
  5. Goleman, M. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. New York: Bantam Books, 1995
  6. Edmondson, Amy (1 June 1999). “Psychological Safety and Learning Behaviour in Work Teams” (PDF). Administrative Science Quarterly. 44 (2): 350–383
  7. Some components to this description of psychological safety have been adapted from an article by Laura Delizonna, “High Performance Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s how to create it”. Harvard Business Review August 2017