Combating toxic work culture starts with conflict resolution

Humans aren’t harmonious beings. Judging by the number of ongoing wars and ever-increasing hate online, we live in a world geared more for conflict than conflict resolution. The workplace is no exception. If anything, it can be the rule.

Now that business life is moving beyond the fog caused by Covid and into a new territory where actionable ideas are the order of the day, it’s time to negotiate a new peace between warring factions. At the same time, the US tech giants are under extreme pressure with brutal layoffs at Twitter Inc. by email and reported cuts at Meta Platforms Inc.  In fact, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released guidelines in October that directly address toxic workplaces.

The focus was very much on mental health and well-being, and on avoiding egregious activity like bullying. My working assumption: Bosses and workers need something more strategic and systemic to address the underlying issues that cause pressing tensions in the first place. Turns out, there’s a roadmap to harmony that can be found in places ranging from the classic tenets of political diplomacy to the traditional business school curriculum to the La Brea Tar Pits, but it has to be learned — and applied in real time.

Certainly if leaders can get better at reading the room, that’s a good place to start. The power balance changed during the pandemic. Management can no longer blithely impose its will and priorities on the workforce, or at least it will pay a far steeper price for resorting to the corporate dominance strategies common in the pre-pandemic era. Notice the 2.3 million members of the subreddit r/antiwork group (tagline “Unemployment for all, not just the rich!”). Goldman Sachs Group Inc. warned a year ago that a shift in work preferences and lifestyles posed a “long-run risk” around labor force participation.

There’s a well-documented disconnect between managers who place a premium on presenteeism and those who don’t. The former suffer from a “productivity paranoia” that translates to just 12% of leaders having full confidence that their team is productive versus 87% of employees who claim they are, according to the latest Microsoft Work Trend Index. Elon Musk qualifies for this category, rolling back Twitter’s work-from-anywhere policy after calling employees back at Tesla Inc. earlier this year.

Finding common ground requires sensitive negotiations in each workplace, away from the gaze of social media. For example, a decade ago a 100+ day lockout by the National Hockey League and its union, the National Players’ Federation, over hockey-related revenue ended with the shuttle diplomacy of a federal mediator.

Workers aren’t feeling understood, or listened to. Many feel they are in a so-called “psychic prison.” It’s one of eight organizational metaphors social theorist Gareth Morgan identified 36 years ago, which means essentially groupthink — a faulty mindset too fixed for its own good. Morgan’s lessons have almost certainly cropped up in the reading of everyone in the MBA class of leaders who dominate much of corporate life.

Given that an MBA is said to increase salaries by more than 40% on average, those who enjoy this hard-won perk shouldn’t put their learning on the shelf. If more leaders reapply case studies, they might find ready-made answers not just from Morgan, but also Dutch sociologist Geert Hofstede’s “power distance” data. These teachings arise from his job in the personnel research department at International Business Machines Corp. and demonstrate how excessive hierarchy and distance from decision-making incubate trouble in teams.

New advice and case studies are available, too. One comes in Amanda Ripley’s book High Conflict, which retells the story of how predatory animals followed each other into a sticky end because “conflict, once it escalates past a certain point, operates just like La Brea Tar Pits…more and more of us get pulled into the muck.” It’s a cautionary tale for the workplace that could be entitled “When You Are in a Hole, Stop Digging.”

Ironically, in order to have what Ripley calls “good conflict,” we have to get into a different kind of muck altogether: psychological chaos. This is definitely messier than the feel-good messages around wellbeing, but more realistic. In Gabriella Braun’s book about using psychoanalysis to create workplace dialogue, All That We Are, she’s clear that to really resolve conflict people need to “consolidate the return from their disturbed state of mind.” In other words, you have to get down and dirty with it. A sophisticated approach to conflict resolution isn’t the avoidance of it, or the sugar-coating of “differences,” but a recognition that humans do unravel, and then they can reassemble themselves. Workplaces are no different. Or they shouldn’t be.

Evolutionary anthropologists argue about whether we always fought or fall into two camps: the optimist doves and the pessimist hawks who will always find our “casus belli” — cause of war. But we can use negotiation and bargaining to ease through conflict, not with a battering ram of take-it-or-leave-it policies but with nuance, patience and a willingness to shuttle between warring factions in order to seek — and make — the peace.

Julia Hobsbawm is a columnist for Bloomberg Work Shift and a speaker, broadcaster and consultant on The Nowhere Office.

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