From Managing to Transforming: Introducing conflict transformation in contemporary workplaces

Many people ask us what are the differences between ‘conflict transformation’ and ‘conflict management’?

Conflict management, in the Business Dictionary, is defined as ‘the practice of recognizing and dealing with disputes in a rational, balanced and effective way.’ The conventional conflict management approach has sprouted from western models of individualism and largely shaped by litigious and adversarial paradigms. The conflict management approach assumes that every individual, once given power, has the right to negotiate for their needs, interests and concerns. It assumes that there is an equal structure and level playing field within an organization. It also assumes that conflict management is a linear process, and can be ‘closed’ once managed.

Conflict transformation is a methodology of addressing underlying issues and tensions from re-occurring in systemically manner. It is described in John Paul Lederach’s decades of work in high conflict areas where inherent structures, systems and cultures fuel conflict. Principles of peace and conflict transformation are usually applied in high conflict contexts.

Underlying issues in workplace exist. However they are difficult to pin-point. Metaphors are useful ways to make these invisible issues visible. For example, staff working within a high conflict workplace would describe a ‘war zone’. A bad workplace culture is described as ‘toxic’. Authoritarian leadership style in change management usually involves ‘rallying the troops’ or 'commanding a ship’.

In a contrasting example, workers in an organization may describe their workplace as a ‘garden’. They share their immense pride, joys and appreciation in their work. They want to care and nurture the space and place. Their ideas and contributions can grow, blossom and cherish.

These metaphors give insights into the culture of the organization, the ways leaders and employees relate with each other, and the ways in which the stakeholders and partners relate with the organization.

Many leaders are well aware of the importance of having positive workplace culture. However, how could we engage employees across all levels in co-creating a positive organizational culture?

It is important to recognize that many leaders do not identify ‘war-like’ culture as problematic. The leaders in these organizations thrive in authoritarianism, enjoy their power and status quo, and refuse to change.

In a highly disengaged dysfunctional workplace, employees at the lowest rank are those who are the most impacted and vulnerable. They have the least power to address systemic and structural and cultural change. Yet they typically have the most direct experience with the customers, clients and service recipients at the day-to-day operational level.

What if, the employees identify problems within the organization and need change? What if, the employees want to speak up, in the best interest of the organization, but are too afraid?

Employees who struggled and felt they can’t and won’t talk about the problem could become demoralized and disengaged. External pressures from heightened rules and regulations, competitive business environment leave little room for anyone to unpack the underlying issues. Organizational tensions rise to crisis points, requiring Board intervention.

It is relatively astonishing that there are few tools and options available to effectively facilitate bottom-up approaches to organizational change.

Unions have traditionally played a significant role in supporting and advocating for the employees to engage with the organization’s hierarchy. As legal frameworks and rights of workers are the backbone of Union, their approaches have largely been adversarial, litigious and confrontational.

Unions do not exist in many countries around the world. And for post-industrial countries like Australia, the influence and power of Unions have rapidly weakened as organizations increasingly embrace neoliberalism and capitalism. Unions rely on memberships (the larger the better) to gain power when negotiating and dealing with management. It often results in Union representatives getting stuck in power struggles, often leaving employees disenfranchised.

A conflict transformation framework offers an alternative approach to engagement, partnerships and collaboration across levels and silos. It provides creative tools and strategies to support senior leaders and employees identify, address and transform the conflict together.

The management usually felt the pressure to present a ‘clean, perfect, organized’ public image to all stakeholders. Conflict transformation processes seek to create safe spaces for participants to come together and unpack underlying issues. The processes open spaces for constructive feedback, listening, giving permission to explore some ‘messiness’, and co-create a common culture that everyone feels comfortable with for the organization.

The phenomenon of the ‘elephant in the room’ is alive in contemporary workplaces, and there is a lot of scope to apply conflict transformation tools and processes within organizations.

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