Many organisations advocate the importance of having an ‘open and honest culture’ and even run training programmes on taking a constructive approach to conflict. But I find that people who attend such trainings and leave excited to put this new, empowering way of working into action often get shut down by their managers at first attempt.
This essential TedX talk by Labour Entrepreneur Jess Kutch: https://www.ted.com/talks/jess_kutch_what_productive_conflict_can_offer_a_workplace is a rallying call for all of us...whatever level we are at in the organisation to realise the value of speaking up. The world is full of examples in which avoiding conflict has had a negative impact, even causing disasters that:
Damage our natural environmentCost livesImpact innovation and creativity
On a more individual level, I have observed 5 costs where conflict is avoided:
Increased staff turnover - people get fed up that a problem is not being handled by their management and leave. The problem still persists in the organisation and never gets solved. For example, a recent client organisation is committed to being an equal opportunities employer. A request from one BAME employee that got put on the ‘not doing yet’ list led to her...and subsequently all their BAME staff leaving, having a big impact on their reputation in the sector. This led to a loss of confidence and we were called in to implement a substantial culture change programme to re-establish a sense of belonging for all in the organisation.
Increased absenteeism and stress - where you know that there is an important conversation to have, but you are too scared to have it...and it affects you so much that it impacts your health. This can happen in many situations...I have even seen it where a person is so scared of the impact of letting her firm know that she is pregnant because she worries about the implications for her career.
Unproductive use of time - time spent discussing the conflict situation with people who can’t do anything about it but lend a ‘sympathetic ear’ might help you get the situation off your chest...but it does not solve the problem. These coffee machine conversations impact morale and amplify a problem that could possibly be resolved through a short, focused conversation with the person who can actually do something about the situation.
Suboptimal decision making - not speaking up when you have important information that can move the organisation forward or prevent a disaster.
Grievances and complaints - when important issues are not handled promptly by the organisation and people escalate to formal processes, costing the organisation time and money.
So why do people and organisational systems suppress constructive conflict...even when the cost of not speaking up is absolutely obvious? I would love to hear your thoughts.
...let’s see if together we can come up with strategies that create a culture in which actions match the rhetoric that we want a constructive approach to conflict in which everyone feels safe to speak up.