Addressing conflict quickly minimizes the risk of bullying in the workplace

Most employers are aware that bullying in the workplace is not acceptable. Pink Shirt Day is an annual opportunity to acknowledge that bullying exists in many forms and can lead to countless harmful impacts. This year, the initiative’s theme is “all kinds of kindness”.

While having clear policies/practices and trained managers who are accountable to upholding them are important, more so is creating a culture of kindness. Kindness involves facing and addressing conflict. It also involves ensuring a safe environment for addressing matters informally, ‘in the moment’, so they don’t become more significant, formal matters later. When concerns are ignored or downplayed, even if they’re no longer at the forefront, they don’t simply go away. Oftentimes they develop into bigger issues – which may lead to bullying.  

What is conflict?

Conflict is a normal, natural, and often productive part of the human experience. While it differs in how it shows up, it does and will exist in every relationship, professional or otherwise. Although often defined negatively as a serious disagreement or argument, it is simply the outcome of opposing thoughts, actions, or ideas. It’s important to recognize and address conflict respectfully and professionally as it can lead to positive results and personal growth.

Why do we (and why shouldn’t we) avoid conflict?

In the workplace, it can be common for both managers and employees to avoid conflict, sweep issues under the rug, and/or not address matters/provide feedback. Some of the reasons include:   

  • Upbringing, experience, or culture/ethnicity
  • Stress – With added stress, there’s less room and energy left to be able to appropriately navigate conflict; it can feel easier to just “walk away”
  • Fear/anxiety – Worry about how the other person will react (e.g., with anger)
  • Ability – Some are simply unsure how and lack confidence in their ability to do so
  • Power imbalance – It’s generally more difficult for employees to bring up concerns to managers (especially if they have feedback for the manager); minority and/or marginalized individuals also often find it challenging to bring up matters to those of other groups

Although the reasons for avoiding conflict are understandable, learning how to overcome them is important in the workplace. When we avoid conflict, it leaves the issue unaddressed and lacks kindness for everyone involved (including co-workers/those not directly involved). As a manager or leader, what you tolerate, you manage.

How to address conflict intentionally and effectively

It is possible, both individually and with your employees/teams, to work towards addressing conflict more successfully and respectfully. The steps below will help you/them break the process down into less daunting pieces.  

  • Start first by understanding how you view and define conflict – If you see it as a negative or confrontational occurrence that will have adverse results, you’re more likely to want to avoid it. But if you reframe it simply as a difference of perspectives, opinions, or interests (or the appearance of a difference), it becomes less intimidating. 
  • Take a step back – When faced with conflict or difference of opinions, take time to objectively clarify what led to the conflict, what it is, what its impact is/was, and what you want to achieve by addressing it. Be especially clear on your own part in the process.
  • Make a plan – Before addressing it, be clear about what you want to say and make sure the time and place is right. Go over the dialogue with another manager or HR, if needed.
     – Gather the facts/details
     – Consider past actions/conversations
     – Are they clear on expected conduct? Have they been properly informed?
     – What are the possible underlying reasons?
     – What area of performance or conduct do you want to influence?
     – What’s the standard for conduct at your organization/in your team?
  • Don’t assume – While you may have ideas as to why the differences exist or why someone acted a certain way, never assume. Stick to the facts and the impact.
  • Take a break – Remember that you can always stop and reconvene later if the discussion becomes too emotional or veers off track. Have a plan B in mind.
  • Go in with empathy and collaboration in mind – Differences involve two people, so consider varying perspectives and how you can work together in addressing it. 
  • Address and agree on accountability/next steps.
  • Follow up! If you agree on supporting and do nothing, you undermine the process.
  • Recognize success and progress – no news is discouraging and demotivating.

If matters can’t be resolved this way (either directly by the individuals involved or with management coaching/involvement), formal policy/procedure would apply – which may include mediation or investigation. That said, more often than not, when conflict is addressed quickly, directly, and respectfully, it also tends to resolve quickly and respectfully.

Pink Shirt Day

This year, Pink Shirt Day is on Wednesday, February 28th. For general information about bullying in the workplace and bullying in the remote work space, refer to our past posts.

We encourage you and your teams to show all kinds of kindness on Pink Shirt Day and beyond. To purchase t-shirts and for details on how else to support the initiative, visit the Pink Shirt Day website. You can also choose to buy an Indigenous pink shirt.

Jouta’s HR Consultants can help you promote all kinds of kindness through compliant and culturally aligned respectful workplace and anti-bullying practices.