Report on “Promoting workplace wellbeing – Handling conflict”, the talk given by David Craigie with help from Margaret Bowes, 10 and 13 June 2011.
The Business Matters Trust is very grateful to the City Chambers for hosting the 10 June talk and providing refreshments and to Lindsays in Caledonian Exchange for hosting the 13 June repeat of the talk and providing a buffet lunch.
Iain Archibald welcomed guests to this second in a series of lunchtime talks under the umbrella title “Promoting workplace wellbeing”. He introduced David Craigie, a Chartered Occupational Psychologist, along with, on 10 June, his colleague Margaret Bowes, a Psychological Therapist.
David had given the first talk in this series: “Developing resilience”. Now he focused in on one key topic from that talk, namely “Handling conflict”. David and Margaret presented an informative and helpful insight into how to avoid the pitfalls in this area.
You can view the slides from their PowerPoint presentation and listen to a recording of the 13 June version (23 min) using the icons at the foot of the page. Here now is a written summary. After each session there was a Q&A time, a written summary of which appears at the foot of this report.
David began by saying that promoting positive management is vital to maintaining workplace wellbeing and that workplace wellbeing can be undermined if conflict is handled badly. He was careful to draw a distinction between on the one hand confrontation, where two parties express and discuss different viewpoints in an effort to resolve an issue or decide on an action path, and on the other hand conflict, where the component parts of the word imply a “striking together”.
He highlighted the key topics that the talk would cover:
- Symptoms of conflict
- Effects of conflict
- Cost of conflict
- Bullying and harassment
- Employer role
- Case Study
David brought to our attention the obvious symptoms of conflict in the workplace:
- Arguments between workmates – not just the usual differences of opinion but shouting matches
- People avoiding each other – e.g. choosing not to go to a meeting if someone else is going to be at it
- Staff being very emotional – e.g. crying
- Problems, which might normally be easily dealt with, becoming huge obstacles
He then suggested a number of symptoms which might go unnoticed but
which could be indicators of a potential or actual problem. We should look out for:
- Staff motivation levels dropping
- Social events no longer happening – why has the Christmas Party been dropped this year?
- Productivity levels going down with no explicable obvious external cause
- Increase in the number of sick days that people are taking
- Staff turnover rates increasing with higher numbers leaving and length of stay in the company dropping
Then David looked at the cost of conflict and the business case for eliminating conflict. He first of all dwelt on the above obvious points – productivity and attendance, but he also drew our attention to two further points of significance:
- The quality of work carried out by staff often decreases as their efforts and energies get diverted into coping with the negative consequences and atmosphere created by conflict in the workplace.
- Where there is a culture of conflict, a negative organisational image is often created. David pointed out that if someone tells us that a particular firm is not a good place to work, we rarely question their information, but rather take it on board at face value and file it away, and we subconsciously let it affect our perception of that particular organisation. That amounts to a reputational loss.
The cost of conflict in the workplace can also include legal bills, e.g. if our organisation ends up at an Employment Tribunal and it rules that poor practice has been prevalent.
The real cost of conflict in the workplace can have a significant effect on the bottom line of a business, notably when the full costs of staff turnover, job advertising and recruitment are added in. David suggested that a few hundred pounds spent up front in setting up appropriate procedures and systems is money well spent, especially when set against the average cost for staff turnover per employee of £4000 to £6000.
The second section of the talk dealt with bullying and harassment. Sometimes we may simply be unaware of bullying, because it can be subtle. In fact, David and Margaret challenged us to consider if we ourselves had ever been a bully in the workplace, reminding us that one person’s “firm management” can be experienced by another as bullying.
Margaret prepared a very helpful slide on the complex interaction of emotion, behaviour, physical health and feelings. This helped us unpack what is not an easy subject. David and Margaret followed this with clear key actions which both employers and employees should take to address any situations before they get out of hand.
On the part of the employer:
- Early intervention and good communication
- A clear and unequivocal affirmation by management that bullying and harassment are not acceptable or to be tolerated
- Procedures and systems backing up this affirmation to be in place, clearly publicised and understood
- Willingness to use expert outside agencies to mediate or conciliate
And for the employee who is being bullied:
- Availability of advice on how to respond to bullying
- Practical guidance on what to do and what not to do and what to record as evidence
- Encouragement to ask for help and to look wider than just the immediate problem workplace situation
We then got an anonymous case study (not in our recording). A “Tom” unexpectedly found himself in a distressing conflict situation late on in his career. It hit him out of the blue and necessitated his taking time off work. Eventually, with help he won through to a positive resolution.
David concluded by highlighting several websites and agencies where help
and advice can be obtained. These include:
Consultant to business matters
Summary of the Q&A times:
Comment from audience:
Flattening structures in organisations can mean that managers are under a lot of stress. There can also be problems that now line managers may be very senior people in the hierarchy, and if there is bullying or conflict involving them, it can be very difficult for all concerned.
A: In such circumstances, carrying out an organisation-wide survey (e.g. using the Health and Safety Management Standards) can help identify organisational issues, rather than just focusing on any one individual’s experience. As a research method, this helps remove subjectivity. Regarding manager wellbeing, managers need to be supported, because they too are under a lot of stress. Managers should in theory be given fewer tasks to allow them to manage others, but this really doesn’t happen. Often they have to motivate teams and encourage staff while at the same time having to make people redundant etc. Juggling these demands is very difficult. We really need to support managers more, whether it’s through Employee Assistance or just recognising how difficult the role is.
Q: Part of the problem is a feeling of embarrassment at bringing up conflict, especially bullying or harassment. Is that more pronounced in men and perhaps stops them from getting help?
A: This is a big part of the problem – admitting that you can’t cope with something. However, it can really help to get the matter off your chest rather than bottle it up. Generally, women can find it easier to talk about these things, whereas many men struggle on silently.
It’s also important to remember that bullying is not always downwards. Sometimes people are bullied by peers or even subordinates in the hierarchy. This can be very embarrassing for someone to admit. Having outside help, in a confidential and trusting setting, can be beneficial.
Comment about difficulties within a team:
A: When we start looking at culture and want to stop inappropriate behaviour, it can really help take the focus and spotlight off any one individual by working together as a team. If someone in the team other than the individual steps in and says, “That’s an inappropriate way to speak to someone”, it can help create a positive culture in the team. This is better than putting the onus on the individual to deal with the matter on their own. Getting outside help can be appropriate too as a way of coping with such difficulties. Not everyone wants to risk their careers or promotion prospects by making a fuss, so making some outside support available can help them bring the matter up and cope with it better.
Comment: Bullying can occur by other means than face to face; for example, it can even occur by fax!
A: Quite. Sometimes, a practical tip is to be aware that you don’t always have to respond immediately to provocation.
Further A: The issue of control is important. Having a sense of control over our environment can be helpful. This may mean taking further ownership of our workload and how we manage our time.
Q: What advice would you give if you think you are witnessing bullying, but are aware that you don’t have all the facts and are not privy to the whole story? More and more, we tend to work in open plan offices, so we often witness more and are aware of different team dynamics and management styles.
A: In an ideal world, prevention is better than cure, so creating a culture where people can reflect on their management styles can help. Many organisations now use 360 appraisal tools to try and encourage manager development. It’s good to encourage a culture that says, “It’s okay for us to reflect on how we do things”. If everybody is going through that process (of reflection and feedback), it makes it easier to deal with individual scenarios. However, if this doesn’t happen, then when there is an issue, it suddenly becomes a major focus of attention and can be a bigger issue than it needs to be. You can also lead by example. If you see a colleague who has a poor leadership style, you can perhaps (in a visible way) invite your own team to give you constructive comments and feedback to help create this culture. This can be an indirect way of encouraging others to talk about things. If it’s a serious problem, then a private direct word may be more appropriate, to ask a colleague how they are getting on because you’ve noticed they are becoming a bit irritable with colleagues. Approaching it from a stance of interest in the wellbeing of your colleague can help.
Q: Is it mandatory for organisations to have anti-bullying procedures and policies in place, particularly small companies?
A: Even if it’s not mandatory, it is very good practice. There is a strong business case, legal case and wellbeing case. And as stated earlier, it makes sense to have procedures in place before an incident occurs.
Q: Is there a grey area between firm management and bullying?
A: That is a fascinating question. It can depend on the culture of your organisation or even within a team. For example, some teams have a very open communication style where ideas and disagreements are thrown around comfortably, and people are happy to work in this way. Because bullying and harassment can be very subjective, we need to be aware of others’ reactions to what we say. If you are in an environment that is very direct and blunt, it may be that what is needed is a way whereby people can say if they have a problem with anything, e.g. offer people a time of open door to express any worries. You certainly don’t want to move too far to the other extreme, that of passive management, as this can be just as problematic as an overly firm management style.
Q: Isn’t it fantastic that we’re here, talking about this topic at all? 10-15 years ago, this is the kind of thing we might have swept under the carpet. You mentioned passive management. How does this contribute to bullying and harassment?
A: This is touched on by research into positive management in the workplace. Positive management is active, not passive. It includes taking responsibility for issues when they arise, dealing fairly and promptly with situations. We’ve all likely been in teams where the leader doesn’t deal with issues. Often this is because managers are promoted without adequate support. In theory, a manager should have half their workload taken away when they get promoted, so that they can then actually get on with the job of managing. However, what usually happens is that they get double the workload. But yes, it’s great that we’re talking about it! There is a subtle shift in language too, e.g. we are nowadays talking about wellbeing (positive) rather than stress (negative). We are trying to focus on wellbeing and use of gifts rather than on troubleshooting.
Q: Is there a role for contemplation and quiet rooms in the workplace?
A: This makes perfect sense for helping cope with stress, for managers and staff. Sometimes personality plays a part. Introverts may struggle with open plan offices and will need that time out sometimes. Smokers used to be allowed to take regular breaks, but breaks should be afforded to everyone in some way – obviously as resources allow. Policies and procedures are important, to know how to use any given resources in a fair way.
Further support for individuals or organisations is available from the Craigie Partnership.