When delivering training workshops on conflict and conflict management at work, the question which is often askes is, “Is conflict inevitable?”. The conclusion that is generally reached in response to this question is that as long as human persons remain human, conflict is inevitable. Any two persons are bound to, at some point or other, to clash, be in a work environment, be it at home, be it in a social environment. Unfortunately, at times, these tensions reach boiling point.
Within a workplace environment, which has become very diversified with people of different nationalities, people with different levels of education, people with different backgrounds, clashes happen when people have different ways of processing and expressing information. There are persons with whom we click and hit it off, and persons with whom we cannot spend too much time in the same room because we rub each other the wrong way.
It all boils down to human nature. Employees have opposing relationship values in relation to gender roles, age, ethnicity, religion, political beliefs and socioeconomic backgrounds, and even differing cultural approaches to humour. We are all conditioned by our unconscious biases and these biases condition the way leaders and their team members behave.
There are those who claim that work relationships are just that, and therefore should be kept at what they call a professional level, and we should not take things personally. However, we all know it is easier said than done. Moreover, work is something personal. It is my job, and I am expected to be become engaged in it. Employers are expected to spend time, effort, and money to maximise employee engagement. As such work is indeed something very personal.
Contributing to all this is the attitude towards work of the millennials, Generation Z, Generation X, and now Generation Alpha. For one generation, being interrupted during a meeting while making a point is considered rude, while for another generation, it is a way of demonstrating enthusiasm for the idea. Similarly, a request for flexible working by a young person might be perceived by a more experienced manager as a sign of not caring.
I mentioned humour earlier on. There are persons who believe that a little bit of humour only helps to improve human relationships. On the other hand, there are others who feel that humour aimed at them, makes them feel disrespected at work.
Clashes arise also because we manage our time and our tasks differently. Imagine two colleagues working together on the same project. You will have one of them who would like to plan it all out and would want to spend half an hour every day discussing how the project is going and run the project in bite-size parts. The other colleague could well be a person who would like to cram everything at the end. Both could be right, but their different style of managing their time will make them irk each other.
Leaders are often told that when such workplace conflict occurs, it is an opportunity to communicate. Communication is often given as a panacea for most workplace ills. I find that what is missing most of the time is not communication but reflection. We can communicate to our hearts’ content, but if we are unable to reflect how one’s behaviour and one’s way of expressing oneself gets in the way of healthy workplace relationships, tensions are bound to reach boiling point. Unless we reflect, we cannot learn, but reflection is not something that comes easily to most of us.
Lawrence Zammit – Director