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The concept that the way an organisation treats its employees is the way the employees will treat their customers is not a new one.  We hear this repeatedly from across the business world

As Walmart’s founder Sam Walton said: “the way management treats associates is exactly how the associates will treat the customers”.  Or, as Ken Blanchard puts it “Profit is the applause you get for taking care of your people”

In a way it seems so simple.  Be nice to your employees and they will perform.  However, organisations and staff are made up of human beings and so inevitably, at some time or another, those human beings are going to upset each other because that is what human beings do.

The Danger of “Conflict-creep”
Where conflict is not addressed at its root cause, it can very easily spill from being a conflict between two people to one between teams and the organisation itself.  In these cases, the organisation becomes vulnerable to “conflict creep” and to lose control of the conflicts and how to address them.  This is quite normal and only presents a danger to the brand when it becomes a story to the outside world.  The problem is that if and when it does, it is very easy for other similar stories to start to emerge and by that time the organisation has lost control.

Although there are safeguards available for employers, they are nevertheless vulnerable to being exposed as bad employers or generally a bad organisation even when they are doing their best to do well by their employees.  Social media and employee feedback sites are filled with personal perceptions based on bad experiences that an individual may have had with one or two individuals they work with or for which colour their perception of the whole organisation. 

Sitting behind most negative posts and feedback generally lie a variety of personal resentments, an indignation about being treated unfairly.  Resentments often linger and grow.  They are often based on a bad experience but are fuelled by other experiences, perceptions and ego-based factors such as pride, shame and fear.  They will combine truth with personal experience that is very personal to the person that feels the resentment.

The limitations of a process deiven response
Even though a company may deal with an issue procedurally well, if the interpersonal and cultural issues are not addressed, the resentment lingers.  One of the only ways to hit back when one feels they have been mistreated by managers in an organisation is to hit back at the organisation itself.  The manager becomes the organisation and the resentment spreads. 

So, albeit an organisation may be considered to be strong with good benefits and transparency, it is still very easy for bad news stories to leak out because of one person’s experience with another.  Unless this is dealt with culturally, it is very hard to avoid.

Following the Google Walkout, the company looked at its response to conflict situations and how it could do it better.  Changing these processes already says that the company is willing to take responsibility for its mistakes and to change.  The change they made was to make it easier to file harassment and discrimination complaints by setting up a dedicated site for employees to do so. In theory, and possibly also in practice, this improves the level of trust within an organisation by saying effectively that the organisation acknowledges that problems may arise and providing a route to remedy those problems. 

However, although the response says a lot of positive things about the brand as highlighted above, the nature of the response means that, the issues may remain.  This is because people use the tools they are given.  In other words, if you have the means to complain about harassment and discrimination then that is what you will do.  Within the clean lines of the corporate world it can be tempting to package up solutions to conflict in formal HR processes.  On one level it is a good solution because it allows people to be more honest about what they are experiencing and ensuring that the victim does not feel like the one being accused. 

The challenge, however, is that these routes rarely deliver the justice that people are looking for, undermine the relationships between individuals and creates a feeling of distrust that infiltrates the wider team and the organisation as a whole.  For example, someone may feel harassed by another person and find their behaviour unacceptable.  They may then pursue a formal action.  But, it is also possible that their claim may not be upheld because it does not tick all the boxes.  The consequence is that the two individuals involved are further alienated from each other and find it harder to address the issues that triggered the claim through a set of well managed conversations for examples. 

Responding through processes also risk the environment remaining one of blame and shame, right and wrong.  Although, I am always clear that we cannot accept unacceptable behaviour, for organisations to really turnaround dysfunctional conflict as a cultural malaise, mechanisms that attribute blame are not enough.  In fact, these systems often embed further conflict and dysfunction by putting people on the backfoot and making them more defensive and less likely to be honest.

It may be that in this ever increasingly automated world, our interactions will also become more automated and more procedure driven.  This fits in well with introducing more procedures that are more accessible and automated. However, automation also requires innovation and innovation needs creativity.  Conflict is a brilliant ground to create solutions where they seem impossible and build the capacity and resilience to keep on doing that.

Early Resolution Schemes as a brand driven response
Key to supporting a brand to ensure that conflict does not spiral out of control is ensuring that the organisation creates a safe environment to listen to and deal with conflict.  For this to happen, it must ensure that resentments don’t grow.  This goes a long way to ensure that conflict related urban myths or truisms are not fed.

Pre-empting this kind of resentment requires:

> Openness from the organisation and its people to accept its mistakes
> Willingness and capacity to change
> A safe environment for employees to voice their opinions
> A culture of recovery in which the individual and the organisation is able to correct their mistakes and be forgiven for them.

To create this culture, simple but consistent messages need to be communicated in all conflict or resolution related documentation or communications including:

> Conflict is a normal part of our work life
> It can range from a difference of opinion to a breakdown of communication
> It is an opportunity for change and growth

Finally, an Early Resolution Scheme needs to supplement the Grievance and Disciplinary process.  What this means is that by simply changing the name from Grievance and Disciplinary process to Early Resolution Scheme the expectations and psychological contract with those involved changes from one of aggrieved and disciplined to individuals going through a process.  Beyond this, the Scheme will also provide structured touchpoints for honest and challenging conversations and negotiations.  These are key to ensure that resentments are explored, misconceptions are clarified, problems are identified and, where possible, solutions are found.  These touchpoints may range from peer coaching to conflict coaching to facilitations and formal mediation and need to be clearly available from the outset.

Finding your brand’s conflict resolution message
It would be impossible to expect any organisation to deal with its conflicts perfectly.  Rather the organisation needs to be prepared to enter into the conversation about what has happened constructively in order to manage the effect of the conflict on the brand.  Its messaging around how it deals with conflict will also go a long way to enable the process of resolution of those conflicts.  Key within that message is to ensure:

> An acceptance that conflict exists
> An aspirational attitude whether that be for human dignity, simple professionalism or kindness in the organisation’s interactions
> An acknowledgement that mistakes will be made
> Clear mechanisms, processes and support structures to address issues as they arise
> An ability to recognise conflict as an opportunity for change and innovation

Key to the success of delivering the message will be the ability of the organisation to follow through on what it promises. This will require honesty, bravery and a positive attitude both internally and in terms of the external face of the organisation.  With that, the brand message becomes much less threatened by the organisation’s conflict and, if anything, strengthened by it.

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

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