The report following the investigation by Adam Tolley KC, a leading employment barrister, showed that Raab, the UK Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Secretary, had bullied staff and crossed a professional line which subsequently led to his resignation. Dominic Raab’s workplace bullying and harassment has highlighted a common downfall in workforce cultures.
We can all probably manage conflict reasonably well in our workplaces. Knowing we might need to handle more than having to put up with our boss ordering to get the same lunch every day, which incidentally Raab insisted on (reportedly the lunch of choice always to be a Pret a Manger of a chicken caesar and bacon baguette, a superfruit salad and a watermelon smoothie).
Of course, conflict in the workplace is a common challenge we all experience. We probably can expect it to feature at some stage in some part of our working life. Its more that when we are in situations that have unpleasant behaviours like bullying, it can feel unsafe, unreasonable and unjust. However, one thing we saw about the Raab is how many people felt behaviour like his was acceptable. A friend said to me, I can’t see why Raab is vilified, it’s ok to be robust in the office especially in high stress environments – people are too soft these days’. Hmmm.
Conflict like this type has a negative impact on employee well-being, productivity, engagement and retention. Conflict and bullying together is also hugely costly problem that affects both employees and employers. According to a recent report by Acas, conflict costs UK employers £28.5 billion per year, equivalent to £1,000 for every employee.
But what causes conflict in the workplace and how can it be prevented or resolved? There are many possible factors that can trigger or escalate conflict, such as:
Poor management: Research shows that middle management is critical to the whole organisation moving forward. So, when there’s a lack of clear direction, feedback, recognition or support from managers it can create frustration and resentment among employees.
Unfair treatment: The research in neuroscience shows that humans have a strong propensity to look for what they think is ‘fair’. In the workplace our perceived or actual experience of unfairness can cause huge distress. Especially such as in bullying, discrimination or favouritism which can damage trust and respect among colleagues and managers.
Unclear job roles: While we don’t want too much same-same at work if there’s too little clarification on our roles it can lead to conflict. Confusion or overlap of responsibilities, expectations or goals can lead to misunderstandings. Oftentimes it can create competition among employees.
Poor communication: As discussed in the Raab case, bullying communication caused a creation of a toxic workplace culture. In a bullying culture and communication there will be a rise in fear and distrust. Lack of effective communication with team members and managers can result in misinformation, assumptions or rumours that may fuel conflict. It leads then to unrealistic needs and expectations. Bosses may make demanding or unreasonable requests without communicating a rationale, impose garage deadlines or targets, which can put pressure on employees or managers and cause conflict if they are not met or negotiated.
Managers can think more deeply in how they communicate and ask – how am I seen, and how do I want to be seen. Asking for feedback on how we communicate should become normal – are we being clear and open. Managers should also ensure they provide clear guidance by clarifying roles, expectations and goals for employees and managers can reduce ambiguity and confusion and ensure alignment and accountability.
We’re in a changing world of work and people do have expectations of not being bullied at work and for conflict not to go unresolved. My friend’s argument of people being too soft isn’t appropriate now whereas perhaps it was more acceptable or tolerated. Leadership research shows that most employees expect work culture to be ‘decent’ as a basic right. This means working in a positive environment where conflict does not tip into bullying, harassment, and toxicity.
To manage conflict in the workplace effectively, it is important to recognise and address it early before it escalates or becomes entrenched. Some of the strategies that can help prevent or resolve conflict include leaders taking responsibility to promote a positive culture. Creating a culture of trust, respect and collaboration among employees and managers can foster good working relationships and prevent conflict from arising or worsening. Positive culture also correlates to higher innovation and productivity.
Work is so integrated into our lives that management needs to also think broader about the importance of support to workers. In our recent blog we talked about having a feedback culture. By providing feedback, recognition and resources for employees and managers can enhance their skills, confidence and motivation and reduce stress and errors.
A huge area to consider for all workplaces is communication. A study I undertook showed me the number one fail companies and specifically, leaders, made was poor communication. In bullying and toxic environments communication can be terrible. Improving communication should be a number one priority for all organisations. But especially for those looking to recover from a bullying culture. By encouraging open, honest and respectful communication among employees and managers can improve understanding, information sharing, and problem solving and prevent misunderstandings or rumours.
Conflict in the workplace is inevitable but not insurmountable. Bullying isn’t a pathway any organisation should tolerate. By understanding causes of conflict and bullying and applying its solutions, employers and employees can work together to create a harmonious and productive workplace.
I do strongly feel that coaching, training, and other forms of learning are essential for management in a complex workplace. Managers need to understand that supporting staff is as essential as meeting goals and deadlines. Developing people management skills is as critical as KPIs. Equipping managers with the skills and knowledge to handle conflict effectively, such as listening, empathising, negotiating, or giving feedback is the way ahead to counter bullying and toxic work environments.
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Blog by Dr Naeema Pasha