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Post-covid conflict resolution

Fiona Passantino, September 2021

It’s going on two years of Covid. We’re stressed, overworked, still balancing our lives at home and work, still trying to figure out how to return to the physical office. We’re creatively destroying our pre-covid rules and dynamically designing our futures. Expectations are changing, teams are being broken down, built and re-formed. People are quitting in some of the largest numbers known to this generation.

An environment ripe for conflict.

Add to this a multicultural population with diverse views and identities, stir in anti-vaccs rage and what you have is a recipe for conflict in the workplace. Sometimes it’s constructive, a battle of ideas and wills. Sometimes destructive, and personal. Can be individual, between two colleagues. Lateral, between or within teams, vertically, up or down the chain of command. Sometimes it’s monodirectional; microaggression, bullying or worse, harassment.

Constructive conflict is good for a company. A functional creative process weaves in friction, tension, a clash of ideas and converging solutions. Even destructive conflict – how it’s handled, particularly – can be turned into something positive. It’s OK to disagree, even in a heated way, as long as we turn it into a constructive process.

Communication that is authentic and believable reflects that when employees tell truth to power at any level of the organization, no one is in danger of losing their job.

There is no fast and easy way to solve conflicts in the workplace. Rebuilding trust takes time and dedication. How these disputes are resolved is baked into the formative values of the company, and communicating this is done with a one-two punch of talking about it and showing the work that’s done to solve it. The positive result far outweighs the opportunity loss of solving things the old-fashioned way.

Old school conflict resolution

Conflict is a necessary part of the creative process. Keeping it in the constructive zone is key.

In the pre-covid workplace, conflict between two parties often resulted in the sudden and quiet disappearance of one of them. The weaker of the two – the less senior, the contractor, the recent hire, the one with fewer friends (or lovers) in high places – is the one excised and pulled from the pack.

From one day to the next, a productive but flawed professional is no longer present for project meetings, no longer answers his emails and no longer posts stickies to the Kanban board. Management states, simply, that “so-and-so left” (of their own free will, potentially to a better job elsewhere, or to pursue dreams of becoming a surfing instructor in Thailand).

Nothing to see here.

The artefacts of the disappeared remain like a ghost no one speaks about. Her name is still on documents, PowerPoints, projects. She still appears on org charts, email chains and folders, which little by little, get renamed, replaced and redistributed until all memory of her is gone.

These junta-style disappearances are rarely formally discussed but chatter rages through the company like wildfire across drought-parched fields. The secrecy makes for irresistible coffee klatch and viral narratives. The story changes, becomes more salient. Trying to answer the many questions; the why, the how and the what next.

The result is a lingering feeling for all of unsafety and unease. The message is clear. If you’re presently in a conflict of your own, constructive of otherwise, don’t say anything. If you’re experiencing microaggression, don’t escalate for help, don’t push back. Smile, keep your head down. Any wrong move and you could be the next to find yourself on the other side of blocked Slack account.

This is the definition of a toxic workplace; a place where employees operate in fear of expressing their true feelings, where discourse must be positive or else, where no disagreements are allowed to exist, where no one may speak much-needed truth to power.

While this is a poisonous environment for employees, crucially the biggest losers are the leaders themselves. In an unsafe workplace, management has no access to the insights they need to achieve worker engagement, which leads to higher performance, retention and loyalty. They may hear and see no evil but will be walloped by crashing quarterly engagement numbers; the only place for employees to anonymously voice their distress, if they dare.

Post-covid conflict resolution

Some years ago, well before Covid, I was witness to conflict resolution that actually worked. Not just for the employees in conflict, but for the wider team. It sent a positive message through the company that disputes are normal and unavoidable and both parties are valued enough to enter into a path towards resolution.

My boss and his colleague were at rock-bottom in their relationship. She, a sober Dutch operational manager, he, a fiery Italian creative. They fought quietly, disagreed about everything. Passively and actively aggressive, they undid each other’s work, sent contradictory messages to the team, blocked each other’s progress. It became impossible to get anything done. It was frustrating and painful.

Their supervisor called them together and talked about the situation in the most positive language possible. Like an old married couple, the pair was dispatched to company-paid mediation and education therapy, where they found each other’s trigger points, learned communication skills, and were even encouraged to go out for company-paid drinks after these emotionally draining weekly sessions. Their workstreams were untangled from each other, workloads redistributed, and they were given light, fluffy projects to run together to test their progress.

The entire process took about six weeks to show results. Improvements were visible and improved everyone’s performance. Because it was all so open and transparent, it sent an overwhelming message of safety; that conflict is normal and solvable, and the company values each person’s voice enough to solve it.

Steps to 2.0 conflict resolution

There is an easy series of steps to follow to set up post-covid conflict management.

  1. Talk about company values; diverse opinions, honesty, authenticity. Make it explicitly clear to your team that they’re in a safe space. Even if the news is bad, or potentially disruptive, we want to hear it.
  2. Write this value out in team communication, in vision boards, presentations, value statements. That conflict is a necessary part of the creative process and guiding it into the “constructive” zone is paramount.
  3. Create the step-by-step workflow for conflict resolution, with avenues for one-way (microaggression), two-way (disputes) and multiway (dysfunctional teams). Assume a “no fault” starting mindset in any situation. Have a separate flow for cases involving harassment or intimidation. Create a neutral group of HR managers who own these workflows.
  4. Invest in dedicated conflict resolution professionals, who have the skills to walk employees or groups through a guided work and mediation process. Invest, also, in a few casual, after-work drinks moments where they can interact and enjoy non-pressured conversation at a personal level.
  5. Show a real conflict being resolved at any level of the organization in as transparent a manner as possible.
  6. Change workflows during their mediation so both parties have some space and distance from each other.
  7. Keep the mood light and positive throughout. This is not a big deal, just a part of doing business, and like any problem, can be solved as adults.
  8. Co-create: when the disputers are ready, have them start on an easy joint project – organizing Monday Muffins or a townhall presentation – to develop common goals and test their new communication skills in a safe space.

Having passionate, diverse professionals work together and offer divergent solutions is good for the company. Different approaches, different ideas, and different ways of seeing the world. Because that’s the way people are “out there”; the customers who ultimately buy the products the company sells.

A company that restricts all negative messaging and projects a “positive news only” tea-and-crumpets communication etiquette is missing an opportunity to engage in authentic conversation at every level of the organization.

It also communicates, louder than any vision statement, that employees are safe. If they’re experiencing trouble with a colleague and attempt to signal it, they will live to be part of the solution. Employees going through this process value and respect the organization – after all, they were valued and supported – this increases their motivation, loyalty and engagement, and this necessarily feeds back to the whole.