Unaddressed conflict affects the workplace in many ways. It reduces the willingness of people to communicate. Unresolved conflict impairs trust. Perhaps more importantly, conflict distracts. Disputes remove peoples’ attention from the work at hand, procedures and the proper operation of equipment. That said, many workplaces ignore the psychological aspects of conflict and their relation to safety. To be a safe workplace, all employees and managers must know and understand the following:
•Conflict affects the group. While it may be the case that two people are involved in an unresolved dispute, their conflict impacts everyone around them. The two people directly implicated in the dispute may gripe and complain to their co-workers. They may seek to enlist their support to develop coalitions to overpower the other person. In so doing, the party to the conflict distracts others around them from their work. All of these behaviours have the potential to create unseen hazards in the workplace. Such hazards are not addressed by safety training or by new equipment. They are addressed by consistent efforts at changing the corporate culture to tackle conflict in a meaningful and productive way head-on.
•Conflict can create long lasting psychological and emotional harm. Workplace safety rules are in place to reduce and prevent workplace-related injuries. Frequently, workplace injuries are considered to be physical in nature. Real, long-lasting emotional and psychological harm can and does occur from unaddressed conflicts. Such harm is reflected in higher levels of stress, lower levels of self-esteem, increased social isolation from peers, anxiety and even depression. All of these emotional and psychological conditions adversely impact the overall health and physical well-being of an individual. Moreover, the psycho-emotional consequences of unaddressed conflict can linger in an individual for years after the event. Just think of the fights you had with your partner before you separated, the unsaid conversations you had with a family member before they passed away or the efforts you put into ensuring your child gets the support they need from the local school. The stress and struggle are real. They stay with you a long time after the event has passed. The same applies for workplace-related conflicts.
•Conflict must be addressed by the group. A conflict may directly involve two people. They may have personality differences. They may have differences over strategy or interests. They may even be in a power struggle. At first glance, the conflict can only be resolved by them. Upon deeper inspection, it is the culture of the group that will enable or hinder the resolution of the conflict. Improving the soft skills of everyone in the organisation will improve communication, negotiation and leadership capabilities. In turn, it will help transform the culture and inoculate it from disruptive conflicts.
Conflict is as much a safety issue as malfunctioning equipment and poorly trained employees. To improve safety related to conflict, every employee as well as manager and owner must know and understand that it takes a collective effort to build a strong corporate culture that encourages and supports open communication and the constructive resolution of differences.
Renée Gendron is the principal of Vitae Dynamics in Russell, Ont. She works with professionals, associations, businesses and entrepreneurs to help them hone their skills. Her work centres on self-leadership, leadership and conflict. Gendron offers bilingual SMRT services – speaking, mediation, research and training. Visit www.vitaedynamics.com
for more information.