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There are several insidious but potent triggers for disengagement within an organisation that start with low level conflicts.  When we start to analyse the link between these triggers and disengagement, we can begin to create opportunities to re-engage members of the workforce.  We can also uncover some quick wins to pre-empt or even avoid similar conflicts and/or disengagement in the first place. 

Step 1:  Identify the conflict-lead risks to engagement
Certain events and actions tend to tap into the low-level resentments that exist at all levels of the organisation and exacerbate those resentments.  This happens because, rightly or wrongly, meaning is attached to those events or actions and can quickly be interpreted as evidence that negative assumptions or resentments we hold are true. 

There are key stages in the conflict cycle which can lead to potential for disengagement and can be summarised in the following example:

Stage 1: Trigger event – e.g. Conflict arising from customer complaint:
Where an organisation is experiencing a high number of customer complaints directed at front line staff those staff can start to feel worn down and disempowered.  Often the issue that the customers are complaining about is one that is known and accepted by the organisation and recognised by staff.  Often, however, the organisation may not have found or communicated a solution.  When this happens, it can create frustration or tensions amongst the staff.  Staff often find them in a difficult situation where they agree with the complaint but are upset by the customer venting their dissatisfaction. 

Stage 2: Resentments develop
Resentments are rooted in perceived truths that result in bad, hard or ill feelings.  For example, a customer facing employee in the situation described above might feel upset about being exposed by the company to having to be on the receiving end of the customer’s upset.  They may then ask their manager for support.  If their manager is not, or does not seem able to provide that support, the potential for resentments to develop is threefold:

>The employee may feel unsupported by their manager and the organisation.  As a result of that, they may make assumptions about the manager and the organisation based on the response they have received.  These assumptions may include “they don’t care about the customer”, “they don’t care about me”.  Further, if the situation occurs again, these assumptions will start to be re-enforced become more entrenched resentments.

>The manager feels unsupported by the organisation and may experience some of the sentiments the employee feels

>The manager may feel unsupported by the employee and make assumptions that the employee does not care about their job or does not want to do their job. 

Stage 3: Employee disengages from manager and organisation
The small resentments outlined above, block the flow of communication between the employee and their manger and nurture the development of mistruths or untruths.  This happens almost imperceptibly because when communication breaks down and our perceptions go unchallenged, what we believe to be true becomes our truth. 

Further, when we start to communicate our perceptions to others in the organisation who resonate with our perceptions this further enforces their own actual or perceived half-truths and perceptions and again fuels resentment.

Stage 4 Manager disengages from employee and organisation
As the employee disengages from the manager, so it is very easy for the manager to disengage from the employee.  The manager may feel that the employee should understand the manager’s challenges and be more loyal.  Equally they may start to make judgements about the employees’ capability based on their lack of engagement which can create a vicious cycle

Stage 5: Organisation or its agents disengage from employee
When that happens, the individual(s) involved move into a cycle of justification for withdrawing their engagement from the organisation.  The people who make decisions within the organisation and who start to collectively be classed as the conscience of the organisation, then also starts to withdraw from the employees.  Slowly, a generic perception grows amongst “management” that employees complain too much or don’t take advantage of the help that is offered.  This collective thought process further entrenches a “them and us” mentality where blame is more quickly assigned than responsibility taken.  When this happens, a perception that the other party will not change or has fixed perceptions, starts to take root.  When this happens, it can create a self fulfilling prophecy and vicious cycle or blame.

Step 2:  Carefully Develop Resilience
Developing resilience to conflict situations creates the capacity to work through the types of resentments outlines above.  However, it needs to be done with care, patience and sensitivity much of which is difficult to conjure in stressful workplace environments. 

Conflict, however minor, can have a significant impact on individuals.  It can trigger feelings or experiences seemingly unconnected to the presenting situation that are deep rooted and that we are sometimes even unaware of.  These feelings or experiences can cause us to feel the effect of the conflict deeply or even appear to “overreact”.  Understanding this can increase our capacity to take a careful approach.  When we understand this type of response as normal and natural, it becomes easier to train the whole workforce on both resilience and increased sensitivity which will have the knock on benefit of impacting individuals’ capacity to lead and follow.  Key skills to develop resilience in conflict will include:

>Building a deeper understanding and acceptance of conflict

This will include developing an understanding of normal conflict cycles and typical patterns in which conflict develops and builds.  Key to this process is for individuals to learn to become “comfortable with conflict” acknowledging it is something that is a normal part of human interaction and has the potential to be a vehicle for growth.

>Empathy

One of the most challenging but most effective mechanisms to deal with conflict is empathy.  If, we can get under the skin of the individual we are in conflict with and empathise with them, we are often able to find a solution. 

There is no doubt that this is difficult when we are triggered in a conflict situation because we are generally more concerned with being understood and heard ourselves.  Learning to rise out of that reactive state and be able to listen to others has the potential to significantly increase leadership skills and ability of employees.  Teaching employees to consciously practice empathy in conflict situations has a direct impact on the confidence and self esteem of those employees which starts to translate to their leadership skills in other areas.

>Listening Skills

We can never overestimate the impact of effective listening in conflict situations.  Deep listening creates empathy with the benefits outlined above.  It also enables clarity which is so crucial but so often lost in conflict situations.  Without effective listening, it is very easy for individuals to fall back into our negative “fantasies” which feed our resentments. 

>Acceptance of mistakes

Very early on in a disagreement, we take positions.  These positions can be broadly summarised as “I’m right and you are wrong”.  The more we attach ourselves to those positions, the more entrenched we become in them.  It also becomes much harder when we take that stance, to focus on common interests and needs which are the things that have the potential to form the basis of agreement.  When we can admit our mistakes and allow ourselves to move away from our position, we are able to move, much more easily, in a direction where we can find room for compromise.

Step 3: Embed a Culture of Early Conflict Resolution
Where an organisation can embed a culture of Early Resolution that creates a framework within which the skills outlined above can be used, the potential to develop trust and therefore engagement, is significant.  A culture of Early Conflict Resolution focusses on:

>Empowerment through personal responsibility
>A learning culture
>Absence of blame and shame

The grievance and disciplinary process can encourage a blame/shame culture because in order to “succeed” in that process, one party needs to be wrong and the other “in the right”.  Although, establishing right and wrong is important, an organisation also needs to provide frameworks that allow both parties to take responsibility for their own actions and let go of blame.  This can happen through:

>Establishing mechanisms for Peer Coaching and “safe conversations”

>Providing managers with mediation skills where they can effectively and, as impartially as possible, manage issues between individuals and negotiate solutions

>Integrating mediation within the culture of an organisation as a solution for sharper end challenging conversations

By doing this, the organisation effectively says “We know and accept that sometimes we are going to have tricky conversations.  We will help you to have these conversations and to find a route through them”.  It also enables the individuals within the organisation to recover more effectively from the impact of challenges and mistakes and accept them as such.

Conflict has the power to build or destroy.  When seen as an opportunity and met with the right response and infrastructure, it can, and should be harnessed as a valuable vehicle for resilience and engagement.

Author of The 7 Principles of Conflict Resolution & Mediator & Trainer at The Conflict Resolution Centre

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