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Manage workplace animosity with tact and respect

In a powerful inauguration speech last week, President Biden called upon American citizens to “join forces, stop shouting and lower the temperature.”

This clarion call for unity is a message that organisations could also heed as they begin to ‘build back better’. President Biden’s speech, and the sense of a new era in US and global politics, gave me an opportunity to reflect on some of the challenges that many of us are facing here in the UK right now – post Brexit and with a pandemic that seems to be unwilling to abate.

When emotions are running high and people are tired, there is a real danger that the workplace could become a tinder box of conflict – particularly if political disagreements about how we return to the new normal are thrown into the mix.

Further reading

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All the signs suggest that employees will emerge from a third lockdown stressed and exhausted, having grappled with the challenge of extended remote working with a heavy dose of home-schooling thrown in.

We are already seeing the first signs of heated disagreements over issues like when (and how) lockdown should end; when schools and universities should be allowed to reopen and the appropriateness of vaccine ‘passports’ becoming part of our personal and professional lives.

The knee-jerk reaction in organisations is often to try and squash these discussions and put them firmly into the ‘not appropriate at work’ box. We have become fearful of the strong emotions that often accompany conflict and feel ill-equipped to handle them.

The problem, however, is that suppressing debate generally has the effect of creating even greater animosity and making the situation worse. People become frustrated at the lack of opportunity to voice their views. Tension bubbles under the surface, before too long erupting into volcanic meltdowns between colleagues from opposing camps.

It’s undoubtedly challenging for managers who are faced with team members with strongly held and diametrically opposed views. But the key is to recognise that the issue is not the disagreement itself, but the way we disagree and manage that dissent.

There’s a widely held view that when people are divided, we need to somehow find a way to solve the issue and make everyone happy. But the reality is that some positions are simply irreconcilable.

It is not a manager’s place to try and change people’s views, but rather to stay non-judgemental and to set the tone of how respectful debate should take place. In other words, they need to help their people understand how to disagree well.

HR has an important role here, in making sure managers are equipped to create safe spaces and to facilitate respectful conversations between warring factions – whether they are divided over a political issue or squaring up over how a critical project should be managed.

It’s about setting some basic ground rules around honesty and openness, not interrupting, allowing both parties to do their fair share of talking – and above all, really listening and hearing each other.

Equally important is to work on shifting ingrained mindsets and helping people understand that it’s okay to disagree, that having a different perspective doesn’t make someone a bad person and that everyone needs to respect an individual’s right to hold a view that is different to their own.

If organisations can get this right, it will allow people to feel heard, so that they can move on and focus their attention on the priorities of the day job.

Done well, it has the potential to be truly transformational, building empathy, bringing people together around a common team purpose and unlocking the creativity and innovation organisations need if they are to emerge from the pandemic with strength and resilience.

Biden sums it up well: “Without unity there is no peace, only bitterness and fury; no progress, only exhausting outrage.”

David Liddle is CEO of The TCM Group, and founding president of the Institute of Organizational Dynamics.