Leading through conflict means believing in the possibility of what does not yet exist. It requires focusing on the luminous opportunity that lies at the end of the tunnel of obstacles.
I have written this article using the energy that arose from the combined success and frustration of another year of dealing with national workplace conflicts at an advanced level. It is wonderful and inspiring, on the one hand, to note the slow but sure acceptance of human conflict as the engine that drives all of our boardroom and factory floor decisions and operational challenges, and the very real, measurable strategies that businesses are starting to put in place in order to modernize their corporate approaches to a range of operational issues. It is however also frustrating, on the other hand, to reach the end of another year and experience a high level of harmful, outdated and extremely costly workplace conflict strategies being accepted, seemingly without much thought, by management and trade unions alike, all of which continues to hold businesses and their employees back from their true potential, a result which is rather indefensible given the economic times that we are living through.
On the positive, inspiring side of things we see meaningful levels of acceptance in senior management circles of understanding the strategic value of approaching all operational concerns, from leadership to team performance, from HR issues to workplace discipline, and from productivity to economic stability as manifestations of human conflict, and the solutions and power that come with becoming conflict competent. On the less inspiring end of that spectrum we see a continued reliance on HR and workplace conflict received wisdoms that should have been discarded many years ago. This is particularly visible in the mostly volatile, often unstable world of the working relationships between senior management and trade unions.
A noticeable part of the size and scope of the problem lies simply in the fact that this cosy comfort zone is hidden in plain sight, in the everyday working lives of so many of our businesses. Management continues to work from a limited list of options and solutions, having either convinced themselves that this is as good as it gets, or that if it is not all that good, then there is not much that can be done about this. Trite, tired and clichéd answers and opinions from outdated strategy books and consultants strengthen this claustrophobic, small room view of both the problems and their solutions.
Workplace conflict is perceived as either manifestations of the adage that good help is hard to find, with a variety of poor performances, internal hearings, CCMA threats and cases, lawyers’ fees and the occasional adverse CCMA or other award or Labour Court order being an inescapable part of the landscape, or an acceptable part of modern business because that is the way that it has always been done. Nothing that can be done about that, these contingencies get accepted and budgeted for, and management teach themselves to take these enormous costs, both in indirect expenses and indirect loss of productivity, underperforming elite teams, loss of profitability and a long list of other hidden costs, on the chin with a Stoic smile and reassuring advice that all of this was “within acceptable limits”. That is why we have an HR department, not so?
And, looming largely as an antagonist in these tales of underperformance, we find the bogeyman of the trade union. With few exceptions, most corporate senior management, compliance and HR environments have a rather torrid working relationship with the involved labour unions. Strained working relationships between these two groups often seem to range between open animosity to a polite indifference, hoping to tick the minimum required boxes simply to get the specific task or procedure done with. Predictable dances involving an escalation of mutual threats, technical manoeuvres and eventual unwise settlements all contribute heavily, if unseen or poorly understood, to a deterioration of workplace efficiency and constructive relationships, poor and poorly measured performance, underachievement, high staff turnover, resentment, cyclical conflicts and conflict rigidity in these workplaces. Until the music starts up again.
The simple proposal, summarized
It is a simple, measurable and observable fact, supported by a range of modern conflict case studies and research, as well as practical experience, that an increased understanding and application of advanced workplace conflict principles successfully address all of the operational concerns that we have referred to above, and then some. Simply put, in the academic and practical consulting work that I do, our proposal is that senior management and the relevant trade union(s) in that industry should become conflict competent in these new principles and strategies. Please note that none of this program has anything to do with compromise policies, any changes in approach to standards or quality assurances, industry expectations or brand and market goals. It is not a campaign of soft skills, woke mantras or hocus pocus. You can remain as tough on standards and performance as you think best, all you are changing is the rather tedious habit of bashing your collective management head against a wall for operational efficiency. Measurable, manageable conflict competence and its benefits, that is all we are talking about.
Ten practical management / union conflict strategies
This is, as can be imagined, a complex topic that requires in-depth and tailor-made discussion for each industry or specific business. We can nevertheless, in order to give you a glimpse of what is available, construct a list of ten practical conflict principles that will immediately increase operational efficiency, lower your risk levels and increase several of the main management and leadership categories such as team performance and productivity. While my own work is mostly focused on consulting and working with management, the following list is clearly beneficial for both management and union leadership.
1. Training in conflict competence
First of all, select a team of involved individuals, such as senior HR, in-house legal advisers, various team leaders, and/or middle and senior management to receive training or coaching in advanced conflict management and conflict negotiation. This can be done in normal work time, over weekends or in their own personal time. It should include written material, distance learning modules, workshops and in-person coaching in team and individual format. If such team members focus on the task this can be achieved in approximately three to four weeks, with longer necessary if they prefer to do such training in their available personal time. The goal here is to fully transfer industry-specific advanced conflict skills to such individuals and teams as to enable them to achieve the other goals on this list. From this initial training management can plan around brief refresher courses for such team members every year or two. Once established these trained individuals and teams can transfer such skills internally as needed. Unions can design their own conflict skills training, or (as we have started to implement), management can run these internal training programs and include selected union and shopsteward representatives in specific parts of such training.
2. Upgrade your systems and processes
This is a crucial but easily achievable goal. All it entails is that management’s existing structures and processes must be refocused on human conflict as the golden thread that runs through every aspect of that business’s activities. Everything stays the same, except the fact that the management decisions, the processes, negotiations and policy or commercial decisions now have an added layer of expertise – that of a business that comprehensively understands and implements modern conflict principles in order to achieve its commercial and other business goals, from production to people management to brand and reputational concerns. It requires a few changes in internal processes, such as a more efficient dealing with workplace conflict as driven by management (think, for example, of a mediation level in internal disciplinary matters), a more efficient and streamlined process map in engaging with unions, service providers and customers.
These tailor-made changes are once-off improvements and additions, while the foundations of what already exists remains in place. Conflict and its advanced, effective management simply now becomes a part of the company’s DNA in an unobtrusive and pervasive manner. Involved management and team members can design and implement these upgrades within two or three weeks.
3. Change the culture
One of the important reasons why South African workplace conflicts are so harmful and so firmly entrenched as cyclical conflicts is that any effective change in internal systems and processes are often resisted, even sabotaged, from within. Effective modern workplace conflict management sounds like work, and HR, shift managers, teams and various other leadership positions often consciously or subconsciously oppose any meaningful internal change, preferring to stick to the tried and tested ways, as outdated and harmful as it may be. The codified comfort zone of the when-this-then-that internal system, the outsourcing of workplace conflict to external consultants (who support and use the same outdated, harmful systems and processes) is simply too alluring, too safe, too comfortable.
These individuals and management teams often have their own internal power silos to protect, and effective workplace conflict, with all of its direct and downstream benefits, are discouraged. It is only when these individuals and teams are shown the ease of transition, the comprehensive skills transfer and the many benefits thereof (including for their own positions) that these walls are broken down. I find repeatedly that these changes in workplace conflict management are sufficiently beneficial that, when they are properly and operationally understood, they speak for themselves and require very little further internal marketing or persuasion. All operational categories are now rightly regarded as manifestations of human conflict on a spectrum, and these modern skills and strategies are applied to all such categories.
4. Problem solving
Popular media and personal experience show us on a daily basis the limited range of workplace conflict tools and strategies known and used by senior management, and the awful consequences of those limitations. Rigid and ill-considered HR and disciplinary processes, often followed too literally or simply as a compliance exercise, bad and deteriorating working relationships between management, employees and unions, ill-advised compromise outcomes and cyclical spirals of less-than-optimal commercial and conflict outcomes paint a picture of leadership that use only half the tools available to them, to everyone’s prejudice. Becoming a conflict competent leader and team will open the options available from effective modern workplace conflict management, where creative problem-solving (and its supplementary benefits) and a range of other solutions become available to leaders and their teams. This, as global and local studies show, hands senior management a meaningful and real advantage in their marketplace.
5. Identity conflicts
Maybe the most important of the strategies on this list – management should, as part of their conflict competency training, become proficient in understanding and dealing with identity conflicts (this is not identity politics). This is a complex topic, and elsewhere I have written on this extensively. For our purposes here, management can simply note the findings of a multi-disciplinary field of studies, including conflict studies, psychology, neuro-biology, social sciences and so on, giving us the very practical tools of managing identity conflicts. Briefly put, we all have our own complex identities, made up of different layers of biological realities, choices, worldviews, opinions and ambitions. In this way, for example, a person can at the same time be a female, black, a doctor, mother, friend and Springbok supporter. This creates the “me”, with an identity, with values. If there is a “me”, it follows that there is an “us”, and of course a “them”. It follows that we belong and seek to belong to various groups and teams that give that “me” value, meaning, validation, protection. We are rewarded for acting like our group, we are punished for behaviour that may harm our group.
The science now available shows us how small a part our beloved rationality actually plays in these processes, and in our conflicts. And it is in the workplace, with its clash of resource limitations, differing interests and approaches that identity conflicts become an everyday reality. A vast level of access to thought processes, nuances, persuasion techniques now become available to management in dealing with workplace conflicts, skills and strategies that are simply not available to those choosing to stick to their old guns.
6. Build better communication channels and safety valves
This step-by-step progression that we are dealing with will now gradually give management and teams access to processes in their workplace conflict negotiations where goals can be actively and robustly pursued, and where such vigorous negotiation and achievement contain its own checks and balances that realistically understand conflict and its risks, and where formal and informal methods of conflict escalation and de-escalation are used to advance such processes, effectively dealing with impasse, frustration, deadlines and the use of unreasonable negotiation techniques so beloved of management / union skirmishes.
7. Make respect and accountability a part of the fence-lines
As these systems and process are refined we will note the popular business management advice to include respect and dignity as part of our internal business processes and leadership styles. This is of course good advice, and supported by a range of current studies. But our new conflict skills will also show us that this is not an unconditional strategy in a business environment. Respect and human dignity should indeed be cornerstones of effective leadership and management teams’ business methods, for a number of laudatory moral, ethical and even commercial reasons. But it needs a working knowledge of modern conflict studies to be really effectively applied. This training will show us, for example, that indiscriminate quota systems as far as race or gender considerations in workplace teams or projects can in fact exacerbate conflict, harming all involved, that diversity can be a wonderful creative energy, but that it needs to be understood and managed carefully and skilfully, that there is no automatic magic in diversity in the workplace. Modern conflict management principles will also teach business leaders the correct and effective role and place of accountability and consequences in modern workplace conflicts, and how harmful most modern approaches to conflict compromise and appeasement are.
8. Understand the shapes and contours of your specific conflict map
This advanced skill level in workplace conflict competency will also enable business leaders and management teams to assess and work with wider complex conflict principles that will give them access to crucial information not available when using outdated conventional methods. Preparation for negotiations, applications of policies and a range of operational processes will be understood and managed at increased levels of advanced management and strategizing ability. This is one of the strategies on our list where management and unions can collaborate, and benefit from, at refreshing and very real levels.
9. Comparing notes
The South African workplace sadly remains a warzone for management and unions. Given our history, the dysfunctionality of many of our state processes and an absolute lack of modern workplace conflict understanding, the preferred strategy from both of these power groups often amounts to little more than crisis management, a limitation of meaningful contact and the occasional acrimonious exchange, which may or may not involve strikes and litigation. In the process, as understandable as it may be, the true creative power of a constructive working relationship between management and a union is lost. Europe and the US have several inspiring examples of management/union collaborations that benefit all involved, that lead to a gestalt result of greater benefit than the efforts of these two sides on their isolated own. Here our unions should carry much of the blame with their often reactive, confrontational approaches designed more for public political consumption or membership drives.
Modern conflict management’s call for a far higher level of skilled engagement has nothing to do with playing nice or being more placatory with one’s opponent, far from it. These new skills, so rarely used by senior management and unions alike, simply make you more effective in reaching your goals through the inevitable conflicts that follow from the balancing of divergent workplace interests. Becoming conflict competent in this sense allows you to keep to your values, your commercial or organizational goals, your deadlines and budgets, but just be better at achieving those goals. This is a vastly untapped source for mutual benefit on both sides of this proverbial fence, one that our economy really should make more compelling.
10. Welcome to the Big Picture
The adoption and implementation of these steps now lead management and leaders to the inevitable end result: a fully integrated workplace where all human interaction, in all of the intricacies and complexities required by that specific industry, get managed as the products of human conflicts. All existing knowledge, strategies and goals, from production to performance to brand management remain, but are now viewed, assessed and managed through the added lens of this conflict competence. It is one of my biggest professional joys to be there when the realization clicks in a boardroom, where everything that a business is engaged in all of a sudden, after the work we discussed above, is all experienced as an interconnected commercial reality that all of a sudden leaders and management teams have one handle, one button on all of the seemingly scattered aspects of that business.
As counter-intuitive as this may sound, the South African workplace does not need less conflict, it needs better conflict. Our brief discussion shows real and practical ways for this to be implemented and achieved, in a cost and time efficient manner. Once understood it becomes difficult for business leaders, management teams and shareholders to argue against these workplace conflict strategies. It is good to note also the synergies with the interests and goals of labour unions that can be achieved in implementing these principles, without losing any value or commercial consideration in the process. This year we have seen slow but positive collaborations between management and local trade unions in the discussion and implementation of these principles, and the early results are positive and inspiring. Much more needs to be done, on a wider scale. Once properly understood and implemented it becomes, to the contrary, impossible not to make use of the advantages of such an approach.
Summary of main sources, references and suggested reading
1. Dangerous Magic: essays on conflict resolution in South Africa, by Andre Vlok, Paradigm Media (2022), especially Chapters 3, 4 and 5 (available from Amazon or directly from the publishers).
2. Various articles on our specialist blog, www.conflict-conversations.co.za
3. The Psychology of Conflict and Conflict Management in Organizations, by Carsten De Dreu and others (editors), Lawrence Eribaum and Associates (2008). 4. Dispute System Design, by Lisa Blomberg Amsler and others, Stanford University Press (2020)
5. Fight Different, by Dr. Mark Szabo, Szabo+Parners Ltd (2020)
(Andre Vlok can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org for any further information)
(c) Andre Vlok