March 02, 2018

We need a better first step for resolving conflict at work

How do you make tough conversations happen when people feel too intimidated to go straight to their managers or HR?

We’ve all experienced stressful situations at work. Sometimes, these moments impact our productivity, sending us straight to texting our friends, or to Slack where we complain or gossip with colleagues. Other times, they paralyze us completely. The truth is, no workplace is immune from conflict: and even if you have your “dream job,” chances are it comes with its fair share of difficult relationships and dynamics.

According to a study by the authors of the best-selling book and business school staple Crucial Conversations, 70% of the workforce is facing a difficult situation at work, but have avoided bringing it up with their boss, coworker, or direct report. One in three people say that they’ve put off a difficult conversation for more than a month. This isn’t just bad for employees: it’s bad for business.

No matter what’s driving someone to their breaking point — too many 70+ hour work weeks, bullying from a colleague, a promotion that’s deserved but not granted — taking the first step towards resolving an issue almost always proves challenging.

For the past several months, the dialogue around workplace conflict has deservedly focused on sexual harassment. These stories have forced us to think critically about the ways we interact at work, and the behavior we consider acceptable from others. But rarely do we talk about the less acute issues that impact employees on a daily basis — small things that can amount to an incredibly toxic workplace, and damage careers in different ways.

In an ideal world, people would tackle these problems when they arose, within the walls of their office. They would trust that their managers and HR teams had their back, and these leaders would have earned that trust and would encourage open conversation.

The tides are slowly changing. Companies are actively investing in their HR and People teams, building up Learning and Development programs, and devoting resources to a positive workplace culture. A few years ago, “Head of People” wasn’t a common job description. Today, it’s a huge focus of many forward-thinking organizations. But the reality is that these efforts can fall flat if the right framework hasn’t been put in place.

Only 65% of people trust the company they work for, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer. This number drops to 48% among non-executive employees. According to a recent study by Legalzoom, only 26% of employees believe that their employer adequately handles office conflicts and workplace disputes.

Employees at even the most progressive companies know their favorite HR person is in a tough spot: constantly juggling competing responsibilities and interests, and poorly positioned to give neutral or unbiased advice. It leads us all to wonder: when is it okay to be vulnerable and honest when talking to someone who works for the same people you do? Can what you say come back to bite you? How are you supposed to feel when the person you’re having issues with is having lunch with the HR person you told about the situation?

HR can be an intimidating place to start trying to solve a problem, especially for people just starting out in their career. To approach HR, we feel like we need a “bulletproof story.” We need to feel like what we say won’t come back to haunt us.

So what are options outside the office?

Most people turn to their immediate circles for advice and support: friends, family members and significant others. The problem is that these people are unlikely to give them an objective perspective on the issue. Others rely on online resources and self-help forums, but these generic how-to articles lack the specificity and contextual information needed to address their unique challenges. And platforms like Glassdoor and Blind have emerged as anonymous online forums where unhappy employees can get validation, feedback, or satisfaction, but how often do they produce healthy resolutions?

That’s why we need a new first step. A new way to approach conflict resolution in a way that helps employees feel totally safe and comfortable, and encourages them to go forward.

That’s our goal at Bravely: to connect employees with coaches who are really, truly coming at issues from a place of neutrality. People who can analyze a situation for what it is, and help people prepare for the next step: going to their HR manager, coworker or colleague and talking through their issues with a clear head and solid action plan.

This piece was originally posted on Medium

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