Managing the Half-Life of Workplace Conflict

Recently, I was asked by a local organization to assess a workplace conflict situation and provide some recommendations for them, going forward. While I did that, I also realize that the tensions that had surfaced in the group don’t just end, full stop. In many ways, they morph and carry on, below the surface, in the individuals involved.  Conflict’s half-life.

Conflict Resolution is a lie?

What does it mean to truly resolve conflict? According to The Gottman Institute, in established relationships, most conflict is unresolvable. It can be managed, however.


Are established workplace relationship’ conflicts all that different?

The half-life analogy re-surfaced for me in this article by Professor Sherry Linkon, The half-life of deindustrialization: Why Donald Trump is just a symptom. Long after the mills have closed, their impact lingers on.

“What he (David Brooks) and others don’t realize is that deindustrialization was never only about economics. It’s economic, social and psychological effects continue for decades after plants closed and across generations, affecting the worldviews of younger people who never worked in steel mills or auto plants. Like radioactive waste, deindustrialization has a half-life.”

Visceral to Canadians is the half-life of Indian residential schools. The schools ended years ago. Their half-life (or whole-life?) continues on.

The same applies to any colonial context, for that matter. The first time I traveled to the “Third World”, I was shocked and saddened, by its’ residue; e.g., “your skin (white) is better than mine (brown).” Though the colonizers had left, the conflict remained.

Managing workplace conflict’s residue

Should unresolved workplace conflict be your lot, here are some ways to better manage its’ impact:

Increase self-awareness. When things go wrong, with others, we are quick to judge, and get stuck on stories that limit our relationship. As individuals, increasing self-awareness is key to conflict competency, and framing constructive stories; ones that move us in a positive direction. A trusted colleague and/or conflict management coach or counsellor can help; through empathy, encouraging questions and insights. If you work for an organization, their HR department and/or EAP (Employee Assistance Program) may be able to connect you with the right individual.

Have conversations about the conflict. Relationships are built over time. They are knocked down in a moment. An unknown wise person said, “trust is earned a penny at a time… but spent by the dollar.” Addressing the impact of past interactions gone wrong can be mediated through authentic, safe conversations. People transform through conversation. This principle works everywhere; in the workplace, home and community.

As an organization, know the true cost of conflict.  There is a cost of ongoing conflict and it is not unusual for organizations to underplay that cost. This table will help you calculate the true cost. Operate from an honest, big picture, perspective.

We are shaped by events, early on, whether in our families or in our workplaces. When those events were destructive, the residue of that conflict can be hard to wash off.  We do well by not taking the term ‘conflict resolution’ too literally.

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