Have you heard comments like this in your workplace?
My team member doesn’t respond when I email or phone her. I don’t feel I can count on her.
It feels like elementary school – the “in” group people just socialize with each other.
I heard them talking about me before I went in to the lunch room but no one ever told me that stuff directly.
He doesn’t talk to me but talks to the person with me.
I don’t know what I’ve done but I know they’ve put me in the doghouse. Half the team won’t talk to me.
If you have heard – or said – these comments, your workplace is likely experiencing unresolved conflict. Like the sore throat that lets you know you’re going to get a cold, these comments are symptoms of worse to come if they are not addressed. And like that sore throat, it may be possible to stop the symptoms from developing into a full blown case of harassment, bullying, or toxic work environment.
As an employee in a workplace it is tempting to think of these symptoms as someone else’s problem. While there may be a role for management, or HR, or the union, there is also a role for each of us in improving our work environment.
It seems simple to say that we cannot control others’ behaviour. All we can control is our own behaviour. Even though the concept is simple, it is very hard to avoid slipping into the thinking patterns in the comments above: their bad behaviour made you respond in kind; you are the innocent victim; you can’t or don’t want to speak up when your dignity is violated.
These examples came to mind recently when I read “Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict” by Donna Hicks. This book describes the essential role that dignity plays in resolving conflict.
In “Dignity” Donna Hicks sets out Ten Temptations to Violate Dignity. Her list applies whether we are thinking of conflict in a work environment or elsewhere in life. Three temptations on her list are illustrated in those comments.
“Taking the Bait” is the way Donna Hicks describes the temptation to let their bad behaviour determine our own. The first step of avoiding this temptation is to be aware that we all have a choice. We can choose not to take the bait, to restrain ourselves from harming others because we feel they have harmed us. The impulse for self-protection is often unconscious and so very strong that we can find ourselves striking back before the other part of the brain analyses the situation and realizes that violating their dignity leads us into danger, that harming them takes us into a cycle of violence which harms us in the long run. Donna Hicks wrote, “The better part of dignity is restraint.” Yes, a person is behaving badly when they ostracize a team member, or do not respond to emails or phone requests. Responding in kind, or escalating the bad behaviour leads us into a downward spiral and makes us part of the problem.
“Being the Victim” is also on the list of Donna Hicks’ ten temptations. If you are experiencing a troubled relationship with a co-worker, it is important to consider how you might be contributing to the problem. Often our immediate self-preserving default mode is to see ourselves as the innocent victim. What is more helpful is to consider how they see us. Especially in long-standing conflict this level of self-awareness can be difficult and may be helped by a neutral outsider such as skilled human resources staff or an outside mediator.
Another of the temptations is “Avoiding Conflict.” Many of us would let the concerns expressed in the comments just slide by. We avoid confrontation. We say these comments to our friends but we don’t respond to the person who is violating our dignity by excluding us or gossiping about us.
There may be times when it is wise not to respond to the person you feel has harmed you, for example if you might lose your job. Even if your boss is the offender, the situation is not necessarily all or nothing. Consider your options and if you need help to do this, consult a neutral outsider. You can choose to speak up; you can develop your alternatives (BATNA*) in the event that the conversation does not go the way you hope and then speak up; or you can say nothing and take steps to protect your own dignity and not allow the offender to harm you.
We may not be able to avoid feeling bad when excluded or treated unfairly. However after that we can decide how to make sense of the situation. Even if we choose not to speak up, we can choose to recognize our own self-worth and not allow our dignity to be violated by their bad behaviour.
Don’t give into temptation. Choose to respond to workplace conflict so that you are part of the resolution, not the problem.
*For more information about BATNA see “What is a BATNA and why do I need one?”