The U.S. workforce is facing a quandary this Labor Day. Finding a job has gotten easier. But finding respect on the job remains a challenge, and employee morale, an increasingly pivotal factor in organizational success, is hanging in the balance.
Conflict arises in every aspect of life – at home, at school, in the community. Conflict on the job is hardly new, but it makes news when tensions in prominent workplaces erupt in public. When the Los Angeles Times first reported illegal drug taking by University of Southern California (USC) medical dean Carmen Puliafito, the behavior seemed aberrant. But subsequent Times accounts that he berated subordinates for years were not as shocking.
It's a sadly familiar story: the high-performing bully whose misconduct is papered over until he (or, less often, she) lands the company in legal jeopardy and a public relations crisis. Why do management teams ignore such disruptiveness for so long? Probably because it seems easiest to avoid confronting a superstar and to hope the rest of the team will learn to tough it out.
That may have worked when unemployment was higher. But today’s robust job market gives employees greater choice over work environments. And they are making it clear they want to be treated with civility at the office now more than ever.
In its 2017 employee satisfaction survey, the Society of Human Resource Management found compensation and benefits continue to be important. But a new trend is emerging. The authors report that, “for the third year in a row, the largest percentage of respondents have indicated that respectful treatment of all employees at all levels was a very important contributor to their job satisfaction. [And] trust between employees and senior management is gaining importance; this aspect increased 6 percentage points compared with percentages in 2015.”
Compared with sizable across-the-board pay raises, effective programs for managing jobsite conflict and fostering workplace respect are a bargain, and they yield large returns on investment. Implementing proven techniques for dispute resolution costs far less than lost productivity, staff turnover, lengthy personnel actions and wrongful termination lawsuits.
A landmark 2008 CPP Global study of workplace conflict found that “U.S. employees spend 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflict, equating to approximately $359 billion in paid hours” per year. The study also showed training in conflict management strategies produces dramatic results. More than 95 percent of American workers who completed such training reported an overall benefit, and 85 percent said it changed the way they approached conflict in their working lives.
How does such training differ from “coaching” or “counseling” when problems occur? Conflict management training is not primarily remedial or situational. The skills it imparts are similar to mastering an office technology: value-added, long-lasting and transferable. Training sessions give employees a chance to step away from constrained work environments and view themselves and their colleagues in a clarifying light. When they return with new skills they have already started applying, they can begin to replace entrenched “me-vs.-you” patterns with resourceful “us together” work practices.
One practice involves changing the dynamic from combative to constructive. When co-workers try to talk about a contentious subject, they enter the conversation armed for an argument. Switching to a positive topic on neutral ground – “How did each of you become involved in this project?” – can start to build rapport.
Active listening is indispensable. Open-ended questions (“So tell me, what’s going on?”) can elicit the most valuable information. Trying to understand someone’s point of view shows respect. Reciting a script from the HR manual may seem safe, but to an unhappy worker, it will sound like a dodge or a tactic, and neither produces results.
Effective communication is coin of the realm in any industry. As reports out of USC indicate, when disputing parties air grievances in what seem like separate vacuums, and no one feels heard or acknowledged across divides, the gaps widen. All colleagues, wherever they live on the organizational chart, deserve baseline respect, because each one has interests and issues that merit consideration. All must take an active part in reaching solutions, not because they have to, but because they will find such accountability empowering.
Job-related conflict is as old as paid employment, but Labor Day 2017 could be the right moment to address it earnestly and strategically. America is suffering from polarization and incivility. As a first step in healing the country, let’s focus on the spaces where we spend most of our waking hours, and let’s build bridges to our neighbors in the cubicles around us.
Steven P. Dinkin is President of the National Conflict Resolution Center (NCRC), which provides the resources, training and expertise to help people, organizations and communities manage and solve conflicts, with civility. Learn more at http://www.ncrconline.com/.