My friend Renee Thompson, Incivility Expert in Healthcare, has been just as busy during COVID as she was before. Same with my friend Penny Tremblay, Mediator and Conflict Management Expert. Is this because these times create more conflict?
Well, as you know I’m not a conflict expert, or at least, my days of being a mediator are behind me; recognition is my jam, so abundant employee experiences, gratitude rituals, and visions of meaningful appreciation events dance in my head.
That said, I hear what clients are telling me, and that is they are seeing spikes in relationship turmoil.
I give caution to anyone who points at one cause, and says, “ah-ha! Another casualty of COVID! Workplace strife!” That assumes the two are explicitly linked. It assumes other factors aren’t at play. It assumes if we took away the factor that caused it, then things would be better or perhaps even go away.
Do you think for one minute if the strains your workplace were currently facing due to COVID – showdowns, workplace volumes, resource constraints – were lifted, you’d be able to proudly post a sign on your workplace’s lawn or website’s main page, “zero days since our last argument”?
Bullying and Incivility…An Inconvenient Truth
Conflict at work was here before COVID, it’s here during COVID, and it will be after.
Conflict is normal and can actually be healthy. (Have you ever been festering inside because you can’t say what you need or are frustrated with feeling your voice doesn’t matter?) It’s functional. We need it. We may not like it, it makes us feel worse before it gets better, however, taking the easy way out and pointing our finger as the “easy” cause (COVID, intergenerational workplace, decreasing sales) often does more harm than good. It keeps the real issues underground and unexamined. Healthy conflict is needed for us to function interpersonally.
I know what you’re thinking, there’s no way it’s functional! It feels terrible! Which leads to more conflict! It also distracts us from our real work!
When I say functional, I mean it has a function. When people ban together against a common enemy, whether that is a peer or a boss or an organization as a whole, it creates a very important sense of belonging that people seek when they feel wronged, frustrated, or unhappy.
In other words, conflict is normal, it’s the fallout, and how unhealthy those behaviours are, that can create the dysfunction. Let’s not get conflict confused with bullying cliques and silos (or BS for short). BS is the manifestation of unhealthy responses to conflict, from not addressing it at all to toxic behaviours that fuel disconnection, and not from the conflict itself.
Sometimes the most helpful behaviour isn’t trying to dampen conflict, it’s to acknowledge it. BS festers and grows when left unattended; if you find conflict really tough, remember, BS that can grow from unaddressed, unnamed, festering conflict is harder. There are resources and folks who can help in figuring out the next steps in dealing with conflict, hopefully, before it morphs into BS. Folks like Penny and Renee and such as these posts:
- How managing conflict is an inside job (Penny)
- Creating a caring culture that does address conflict and toxic contexts at work (Renee)
The bottom line is this: pointing to a “situation” like COVID or that new project or the intern isn’t helpful as conflict isn’t a simple “fix” nor is it something we need to avoid at all costs. Just when it seems like it too overwhelming to deal with any more “tough stuff”, know you’re dealing with it anyway.
Wouldn’t you rather deal with it practically so it doesn’t hang around you like a bad smell?
The process of dealing with conflict won’t smell like roses, however, I think we can all agree, moving forward slowly is better than being stuck standing still. One step at a time.
I have a few more articles on the way for you that builds on this one, and in the meantime, for more ideas about dealing with conflict and creating connections at work, here are a few past articles you may find particularly relevant to revisit: