The byrne∙dean team comes from a variety of backgrounds, professional expertise and human experience. We are variously trained and experienced in traditional litigation, mediation, investigation, counselling, coaching and much else besides. Between us we have decades of experience of trying (and often failing) to resolve disputes in different ways. We offer the following as some general observations on the realities, difficulties and opportunities of workplace dispute resolution.
1. It’s a bit like being married….
It’s a truism that we spend more time with our work than with our life partners. Both environments have hugely important parts to play in generating our overall sense of engagement, fulfilment, self worth and general happiness. Yes we get paid to go to work and that is an important part of the deal, but the huge emotional connections and importance that work plays in our lives mean that beginning and ending a work relationship, and working through the problems in between, is as much an issue of the emotion and feelings involved as it is about anything else. We start from the premise that ‘all employment problems are emotional problems.’
2. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger
The strongest partnerships are those that have survived being tested – that have faced great turmoil, perhaps have looked over the brink of separation, and have worked through the issues and found an understanding and set of behaviours that enable them to continue – in work as much as at home. If we can approach workplace conflict from a perspective of how to get into next year and beyond and still be together then we will build stronger, more sustainable and more rewarding work relationships.
3. Learning to explore and live in the grey
Human nature is to seek out the black and white. We feel much more comfortable living in the certainty of the polarities. We are either right or wrong, good or bad, lazy or hard working, happy or sad. The reality of life, however uncertain and uncomfortable it may be, is in the grey in between – whether it be because of the ever changing nature of our emotions, the fact that our view of events is based on our own frame of reference (replete with our unconscious preferences and biases) or because our reactions and memories are infected by both. Something that we often say (and we find that people often struggle with) is that ‘there is no reality of performance – it’s all a question of perception.’
Traditional dispute resolution is black and white ands such it is uniquely ill equipped to deal with the realities of workplace dispute resolution. In 95% of cases, for example, someone accused of bullying did not intend his/her behaviour in that way and certainly his/her behaviour was not simply a narrative of bullying – there were countless other aspects to it. Whether someone is bullied or harassed is not a matter of the intention of the alleged bully but must also take account of the impact of the behaviour on the person being impacted.
Understanding what took place and working through it to build a strengthened relationship for the future requires an understanding and discussion of the different perspectives, emotions, motivations, choices, and behaviours of the parties involved. That is not going to happen in a court room or tribunal.
4. Court as a last resort
So the courts and tribunals ought to be a matter of last resort, and indeed something far removed from our consciousness when trying to resolve conflict. You would not expect a married couple who are arguing about his leaving the toilet seat up to have to do so within a framework envisaging the divorce courts as the last resort and having to consider their actions against the benchmark of how the judge might view their behaviour. And yet that is precisely the way in which people are encouraged to approach workplace disputes.. Formulaic disciplinary/grievance procedures with set steps, timetables and rights of appeal, all with an eye on avoiding an increase or decrease in compensation at the tribunal. Couples are encouraged to go to counselling, to find a safe place to disclose to the other their feelings and concerns, to listen to acknowledge and try to understand the perspective of the other and to find a way to live together going forward, or, failing that, to separate on good terms and with good grace. None of that has the threat of any sanction hanging over it.
Of course, it will be said that one can take a metaphor too far and the equality of bargaining position between two people in a relationship is far removed from the inequality in most employment relationships. That is clearly right. One individual employee might seem powerless against the might of a global bank for example. But it ignores the fact that the actual dispute (at least at its inception) is likely to be between the employee and another (probably only slightly more senior) employee which, depending upon the approach taken by the organisation, reduces that inequality dramatically.
5. Talking as a first resort
As an employee or as a manager, the other person is very unlikely to know you have a problem with their behaviour, or at least what the problem actually is, unless you tell them. Everyone in a workplace (and yes of course the same is true in a relationship) should speak up when there is an issue and to listen respectfully, openly and fearlessly when an issue is raised with them. In this way an issue that begins with unplugging your computer when you are out does not turn into an allegation of race discrimination down the line. Staying silent and ignoring people may allow you to avoid the issue in the short term but will almost certainly cause the issue to fester and will prevent effective collaboration in the meantime.
The most effective working environments and working relationships are those that promote regular effective two way communication. Prevention is the most effective way to resolve the problem of workplace dispute and prevention begins with communication.
6. Getting help…. helps
We know that sometimes we need help in having those conversations. It may be that we need someone to create a safe place for us to say what feels too dangerous to speak out about somewhere else. Also, because people are not wonderfully self aware a lot of the time, it sometimes needs someone else’s help for each of us to really understand what the issue is. Anyone who has undergone counselling or coaching will know that one of the major benefits the professional will bring is in helping us to understand, own, and own up to some of our deepest and more confused feelings.
In the context of a relationship (work or at home) doing that together, whether in the form of joint counselling of a sort or through mediation can enable the parties to understand their own behaviours and reactions as well as those of the other and to see things from the other’s perspective. This can help to break the negative cycle of person A reacting in a certain (let’s assume negative) way to person B’s behaviour which leads to person A behaving in a particular way which sparks off negative reactions and then further behaviours in person B and so on, and which in the workplace context can lead inexorably to the tribunal.
7. Starting early
The inevitable consequence of that negative cycle and much else of what we have said before is that the earlier you walk towards, as opposed to away from, a problem and find a way to talk about it, the more likely you are to be able to resolve it. So often in our investigation work, in particular, we find ourselves being introduced at a point in the dispute where the parties have become entrenched and have thrown too many missiles at the other for mediation to be considered. Had we been able to facilitate, or mediate, a conversation earlier, a much healthier (and cheaper and less painful) solution might well have been achieved.
8. Horses for courses
Finally, just as every individual is different and the relationship s/he has with everyone else is unique, so the issues that arise between them for resolution are unique. Given that context, the means to achieve that resolution need to be flexible and adapted to the individuals and the circumstances. Too often a legal process controls the dispute and its resolution and forces it down formal and inflexible routes. A more effective way to achieve lasting resolutions built on understanding and awareness which strengthen rather than destroy a relationship is to approach the means of resolution with an open mind as to what best works for these people in this situation. That is the beauty of mediation. Never see mediation as a process. There is no one size fits all approach and everyone can contribute to designing the frame in which the necessary conversations can take place.
Byrne∙dean has a highly experienced team of workplace dispute resolution experts. If you want to have a chat about the issues raised in this note or any other aspect of workplace conflict – its avoidance as well as its resolution, please contact us. We love talking about this stuff. And we don’t have a clock that starts running when you call!