ArLyne's Diamonds

A running commentary of ideas

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Conflict in Today’s Workplace: Problems and Solutions

In a radio interview, I was asked if I thought there was more conflict in the workplace today than in the past. My reply was “Yes”. We have become more diverse, more complex, and more informal. These changes are wonderful, but they bring with them misunderstandings and conflict.

One of the most common assumptions we all make is that the other person sees the world exactly as we do – or at least almost exactly. This assumption leads to misunderstanding and conflict – especially in today’s diverse and global workforce.

Not only are there differences in country, religious, and ethnic backgrounds, but we have gender and age differences as well. There is wide variation in world-view, values, standards and beliefs about “this is the way it is”.

Some of the Causes

The Fundamental Differences of Ordering Information

Starting with the most fundamental: Internally, we order our world by sensation, perception, and abstraction. Sensation is the information received purely by the senses of sight, smell, touch, sound and kinesthetic. Perception is the manner in which we personally order our sensations and finally, abstractions is the higher order clustering of our perceptions. Values, ideas, creativity are all part of abstractions.

One would think that the differences lie solely in the area of abstraction. Not so. Differences start at the very start of sensations. Let me give you an example.

I am a redhead with very fair skin, light aqua eyes and lots of sensitivities because of it. I’ve even referred to these sensitivities as “the canary in the coal mine” in an article I wrote. Bright lights hurt my eyes much more quickly than they do for a brown eyed person. Loud noises make me jump. Going out in the sun for more than a few minutes turns me beet red and sometimes even hospitalizes me. I get my Vitamin D from the sun very quickly – whereas a brown skinned person needs to be out in the sun much longer to get the same amount of Vitamin D, and he/she doesn’t often burn so quickly.

So, there you have differences in how the same sensation is received by different people.  Now, when we receive this stimulus, we order it into perceptions: hard, soft, red, blue, quiet, loud, table, chair, good, bad, etc. Our prior experience, based on our environment, our DNA (yes, genetics plays a part as we are learning more and more) and how we were nurtured, taught, and raised in general.

What might seem right for me – such as holding my fork in my left hand and my knife in my right when cutting my meat and then switching them to eat (how inefficient!) whereas people from Europe do the opposite and people from Asia use chopsticks. As an American, I drive on one side of the road, but in London they drive on the other side.

Language is interesting as well.  Words that have “dirty” connotations in one country do not necessarily have the same connotation in another. One example is that the word “fag” refers to a cigarette in England.

Since there is variation in sensation and perception, our starting places are different. Now, language plays a role – a big role – in how we order these into abstractions. We adults operate primarily from our abstractions.

Quality, Timeliness, Ethics

These are high order abstractions and their meaning varies tremendously across different groups of people. For example:

Growing up in a middle class family, my expectations about quality are extreme. I want the seams matched on my clothing, the carpeting mitered correctly in the corners, and no typos in my documents. Someone coming from a very poor background might not even see the things I notice.

Wealthy women in El Paso, just across the border from Mexico have day-workers who come each day and return each night. During a Board of Directors’ training there, I was told that some of the women in the Synagogue wanted to know why their day-maids (who hardly spoke English) couldn’t substitute for them in their volunteer commitments.

In many Latin countries, time is fluid.  An American flying to keep a pre-arranged appointment can be told that the person she was meeting was unavailable because of a family event. Family comes first.

What we see as bribes, others see as necessary gifts in order to get business done.  What we might see as cheating, others see as team work and collaboration.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual Harassment is a prime example of an abstraction of a cluster of behaviors that have different meaning to different people and leads to workplace conflict.

I conduct sexual harassment/discrimination and diversity training for many of my corporate and government clients. Among the exercises I use when training to understand these issues is a series of vignettes that my participants need to grade on a scale of 1 – 5, with 5 being the most severe and 1 the most benign.

Participants from India, for example, when given these vignettes, almost always grade each of the items as a 5 – or most severe. Americans show a range of answers to the same questions and Europeans sometimes laugh at some of them thinking they do not even rise to the level of being an appropriate vignette for the exercise.

In the Indian culture, you show respect – deep respect – for women. Therefore, you don’t tease them, touch them, comment on how they are dressed, groomed, or look in any way. In America, teasing – good natured ribbing – is very common among men and some of them have yet to realize it is far less common among women. Italians and French say “viva la difference” and love harmless flirting – which could get them fired in America.

Very religious people are offended by even the mildest of what we consider “dirty words” – or profanity. Women who dress very conservatively are shocked by women who wear low cut or revealing clothing.

So, when teaching avoidance of getting in trouble, those of us who teach these programs need to emphasize the importance of being extremely conservative in our professional workplace behavior.

Insults are in the ear of the receiver:

There are words and expressions that have emotionally charged connotations for a specific group of people. Often people from other groups use these words loosely, not recognizing the negative and sometimes quiet hostile and frightening connotations. The so-called “n” word because it is considered so insulting is the classic example. But, there are others as well.  “Jap” for someone of Japanese heritage, “Oriental” for people of Asian descent are just two of many examples. I’m Jewish. When someone talks about “jewing them down” meaning negotiating, I cringe. Native Americans don’t really like it when we talk about being “An Indian giver.”

So, although beauty may be in the eyes of the beholder, insults are in the ears of the receiver. What I tell my clients is to realize this and to recognize that if someone is insulted by what they say, whether they agree it’s insulting and inappropriate or not, they should stop saying it – unless of course they really want to be insulting (and possibly fired from their job.)

Management and Collaboration Styles

In many countries of the world and in prior years here in the USA, the workplace consisted of a clear authoritarian structure and chain of command. The scarcity of jobs and the need to feed the family left many people passively submissive to any orders given them by their “boss.” Workers obeyed orders, kept their gripes and personal issues to themselves, and rarely defied authority.

Today, many of us are “knowledge workers”, with education, freedom, and opinions of our own. We need a more participative and persuasive form of management, not an authoritarian one. Yet, many of our managers are older and “old-style.” We have managers all over the world with different styles and workers all over the world with different expectations and experiences as to how they should be managed.

The games we play as children have an effect on how we manage and want to be managed. Girls play house and actress and roles are equal. Boys play sports where there is a clear structure and chain of command. Yes, this is changing today – but not totally. So, I’m offering a generalization (not a stereotype – which I will discuss next) in order to explain some of the misunderstandings and conflict common to today’s workplace.

Because of these early childhood experiences many women tend to be more collaborative than men. We like to talk things over. Men, less verbal and more action oriented are more likely to think things through in their heads and then offer a pronouncement of their decision. Some women bristle at this style, others learn to adapt. Men are also learning to adapt to our more egalitarian, collaborative and discussion-involved style.

A funny example: Prior to women being made partners in Law Firms, men knew their place. The junior associates, when invited into the staff meeting, were there to receive information, not offer it (as in children should be seen and not heard). The senior partners could discuss issues brought up by the managing partner. Others could not. Well, we women never learned those rules. When we came in, we thought we had an equal right to raise our opinions. In the beginning of the changes, heads rolled. Today, of course, there is an integration of men and women and diverse styles even in the law firms' staff meetings.

Generalizations, Stereotypes and Prejudice

OK, before I go any further and get into trouble, let’s make some distinctions. A generalization is a statistical average. “Most people” are … or do … etc. Height is a good example of this.  The generalization: Most American women are between 5’4” and 5’8”. Does that mean all women are? – NO. Does that mean someone smaller is not American? – Not necessarily. But the generalization helps clothing manufacturers.

The stereotype is to believe that all women must be between those numbers and that someone is not a woman if they are either taller or shorter. Finally, the prejudice is to pre-judge any woman before even meeting them, or measuring them.

Generational (and Cultural) Differences

People who believe you work hard in one company and value their job security above other things have a different attitude towards work than those who believe that they have many choices and only work in a company as long as they are “having fun” and “being appreciated.” Generation X, for example is said to want balance in life between work and home. Others are willing to work 14 hour days 7 days a week.

Distant Teams

We are often working with people we’ve never seen. They may be across the street, working at home in their pajamas, or across the world. Our contact with them is mostly by e-mail and none of us see the expressions on the faces of those with whom we interact. Misunderstandings because of e-mail are one of the leading causes of today’s workplace conflict.

Stress of the Many Hours at Work

It’s hard to remain pleasant when exhausted.  Here in Silicon Valley, and in its counter-parts in many other parts of the country – and the world – are working very long hours for months and years at a time. The adrenaline rush that allows for us to do extraordinary things in emergency situations burns out over repeated stressful events an times. We are depleted and react negatively from our perpetual state of exhaustion.

We may be working longer hours, but we really aren’t being more creative or productive.  We make more mistakes because of this state of exhaustion. Stress causes us to be less tolerant of others and to snap at small things.

The Tyranny of Pleasantness

Although this topic deserves an article all its own – maybe even a book – let me give a brief explanation here.  We work in groups and teams and decisions are not made by secret ballot. We try to reach consensus and have been admonished if we disagree more than mildly. “Tall poppies get cut down”; “Tall nails get hammered down.” This leads to us going along to get along. We don’t want to make waves. We don’t want to stand out as the person who holds up the decision – the unpopular one.  So, we go along to get along –and sometimes bad decisions result from us not arguing our opinions.

Understandng and Training

Since people of all genders, ages, cultures, styles, beliefs and expectations will continue to work together physically or virtually, we need to learn to understand each other better, and to have a shared set of workplace values and expectations.

So at the least we need:
  • A common culture – core values – with clearly defined behavioral expectations set out in policy manuals and reinforced by training, and by management training as well.
  • Diversity training that teaches us not just about food and dress differences, but how to really understand cognitive, communication, and cultural differences.
  • Acceptance and recognition of the differences, from conservative to liberal (and I mean more than just politically.)
  • More attempts to clear up disagreement through conflict resolution, rather than sanctions and punishment.

What Is Conflict Resolution?

Who Do You Believe?

The tendency is to believe the first person in your office – the one making the complaint. They touch our hearts and we rush to their defense. This can lead to all sorts of problems, because you then accuse the person being accused – and if you conduct an investigation you often do so with your assumption that you are looking for evidence to support the view of the complaining person.

I’ve seen many investigations – by seeming experts – who state that anyone who voices an opinion not supporting the allegations is either lying or denying. Evidence in support of the allegations is the only evidence considered valid – and the truth is often destroyed.

Neutral investigations are not merely whether an insider or outsider conducts it – it is a matter of assumption.  Neutrality means you don’t know the answer ahead of time. All information received is potentially valid, not just that supporting one point of view.

How do you handle it?

Many managers and HR reps think they need to be Judge and Jury when they receive a complaint. Quite often that is an inappropriate response. Even Solomon had difficulty resolving a dispute between two women each claiming to be the mother of a particular baby. Most of our workplace professionals are not trained to do investigations or neutral evaluations. If the charges are serious, they might need to bring in a conflict resolution expert. If the charges are mild, as most are – my recommendation is to bring the protagonists together and help them talk things over with mediation and if necessary, conciliation.

Policy, Procedures and Sanctions

Before I go into details of conflict resolution, let me set the stage by suggesting that all companies, no matter how large or small, have a set of policies and procedures with clearly defined sanctions for violations. I’d also suggest that the punishment fit the crime. Just as the criminal justice system recognizes the difference between an infraction, misdemeanor, felony, etc., so too should policy makers in the workplace.

Zero tolerance as a strategy often backfires. There are well-known examples from the school room. A Kindergarten boy was expelled because he kissed a little girl on the cheek – they called it sexual harassment. A young boy was suspended because he accidentally brought his mother’s paring knife to school when he took her lunch bag instead of his own. Even though she called the school to explain – he was suspended for bringing a weapon. Then, most recently there was the school principal who wouldn’t let an ambulance onto the football field to pick up a badly injured player because she had been told not to let cars onto the football field.

On the other hand, we need to document even the mildest of infractions because we do want to be aware when there is an on-going pattern of misbehavior. The manner in which we document is critically important. Facts, not feelings are mandated. Quoting others directly (with their signature) is more reliable than paraphrasing. If venturing an opinion, it should be so stated, not entered as another fact. Finally, all documentation of this nature needs to be centrally located (HR is the place) and in a locked file.

Conflict Resolution – Alternate Dispute Resolution


Arbitration is a slightly less formal manner of adjudicating a dispute. The arbitrator receives evidence, listens to testimony, hears witnesses and renders a verdict. This is very much like a Judge in court. Indeed, many arbitrators are retired Judges. This is not the best strategy for HR or management in most companies.


Mediation, which is my favorite (although I do the others as well) is the process of bringing the parties together and helping them talk about their issues so that they can resolve them themselves. The mediator does not make the decision. She facilitates the process. Really good mediators allow the emotional content and context of the disagreement to emerge, knowing that the air must be cleared before rationality sets in leading to a healthy resolution. In mediation, you want the parties to be able to work together after the conflict is resolved. That’s one of the reasons it is the best strategy in the work place – except in egregious cases.


Conciliation is the process of the facilitator being a go-between between the parties. Usually the parties are in separate rooms and the facilitator acts as a translator going back and forth from one party or group to another. This might be helpful when the conflict is so harsh and you fear bringing the people together – or in large group disputes such as union v. management disputes. Generally speaking though, it’s not the most effective way of helping people resolve their differences. I must prefer mediation.


This might sound naive, but I firmly believe that most people want to do good – not bad. If they hurt each other, it’s usually due to lack of understanding or misunderstanding. Even if I am sometimes wrong about this, it’s the better assumption when conducting evaluations or investigations.

Yes, some people are evil. There are the bullies who take advantage of the more vulnerable – and that’s why we have created these workplace rules to protect those needing protection.

But, don’t let your own prejudices – such as people who complain are telling the truth, or men always sexually harass women – or even zero tolerance means throwing away common sense – get in the way of making rational, reasonable, and charitable decisions.

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