South African businesses face a lot of challenges. In addition to the normal business difficulties such as keeping the cash-flow positive, finding and expanding products, markets and systems, we also need to contend with political instability, bureaucratic ineptitude and dysfunction, systemic corruption and other business existential threats. It takes skill and fortitude just to keep afloat for most businesses, much less to prosper and grow as they would wish to do.
Why then add to our challenges, our frustrations and our costs by the outdated, ineffective manner in which we handle conflict at work? Well, part of the answer is simply that most businesses have never thought of the problem in those terms. Staff appointments and development, disputes, union negotiations, strikes, CCMA and bargaining council disputes and a series of other workplace risks are treated as inevitable irritations and expenditures, necessary evils that should be avoided where possible and treated as hostile attacks on the company when they can no longer be avoided. And therein lies much of the problem. Covid, with its full-frontal attack on our lifestyles, with its lockdowns and workplace vaccination arguments, has shown up the fragility and sheer unpreparedness of much of what passes as workplace conflict / HR systems.
We are using workplace conflict systems (when last did you hear that concept mentioned) that have been designed twenty or thirty years ago, systems that do not know that they are systems, often run by poorly trained, poorly equipped and poorly motivated people who are often treated as very little more than messengers of bad news, resented cleaners of the Augean stables of the perceived perpetual workplace conflicts. Workplace conflict, when it is noticed and understood at all, is often discouraged and treated with maximum force to be suppressed, regardless of the direct and indirect cost and consequences of such a lazy strategy. A lack of skill, training and experience often flows into operational requirements and pressures where the inevitable result is that the signs of these disruptive conflicts are often ignored until it is too late and when it becomes a matter of crisis management. And that, we often call our HR strategy, our workplace conflict system. Boards and management keep an eye on legal costs, settlements to claimants and other such battleground parameters, and from there they are pronounced acceptable or otherwise. More often than not hundreds of thousands of Rands (or more) are spent on these outdated systems, without any real idea as to the alternatives that such a business should measure their performance against.
It is here where these under-performing attitudes and work habits start perpetuating the original shortcomings, and businesses start labouring against themselves, moving further and further away from where they should be on this crucial playing field. The problem, if it is acknowledged and understood in the first place, then gets treated with outdated and demonstrably blunt tools. Management pours gasoline on the fire and everyone wonders why there is so much heat. Part of the problem is systemic. Our HR curricula is generally completely inadequate to the task at hand, with only the faintest nod in the direction of an effective mastery of workplace conflict, its triggers and hidden power, and with an unfortunate focus on process driven solutions that perpetuate and entrench the very problems that management wants it to solve. Internal conflict staff and even most outsourced consultants are often poorly trained in modern conflict management skills, and these consultants’ business models are often better served by this cyclical conflict patterns that we see everywhere in South African workplaces. Workplace conflict becomes a necessary evil, something to be prevented where possible and to be dragged behind when not. In the process HR or other workplace conflict personnel become grudge appointments and expenses, tasked with only the most superficial crisis management and used as ex post facto firefighters, as opposed to the effective advisors that they can and should be.
In its 2019/20 annual report (published late last year) the CCMA reflects
“It is noted however, that the year-on-year rise in case referrals to the CCMA suggests an unsettled and conflictual labour market as a result of the socio-economic challenges of the country.”
And yet, most business, even with this reality having been on our doorsteps for decades, continue to deal with the problem in a reactive manner. It often seems to be an acceptable answer at the boardroom table to show how these costs were “manageable” or “affordable”, how the company lived to fight another day. Considerations of hidden costs and lost opportunities are hardly ever considered, and dynamic modern considerations like the power and impact of workplace culture, the benefits of a complex workplace conflict system, staff turnover, morale, the productivity impact of unresolved conflict, where conflict starts and other considerations are not understood or studiously ignored.
South African business at all levels seem intent on surviving to the extent where the rule of “don’t fix it if it’s not broken” have become such an effective mantra that we have failed to see that, in fact, it is broken.
What are examples of received “truths” and methods that should be thrown out in such a spring-cleaning process? Some musty old philosophies that drive these costly errors can do with an upgrade. A properly designed workplace conflict system is not expensive, it is not cumbersome, it does not need extra personnel, and it can and should be an internal process. The tick-a-box disciplinary processes, with its warning-disciplinary steps, its adversarial nature and its time consuming mazes are not the panacea that cures all workplace disciplinary and conflict challenges. Some traditional HR methods and processes are simply outdated and need to be reconsidered, and maybe the biggest strategic error made in considering these improvements that management can make, is to continue thinking that such a workplace conflict system is “soft” on discipline and rules, that it may lead to new discipline problems and that there will be no consequences to bad behaviour.
What does such a professionally designed workplace conflict system bring to the employer and employees? A brief, summarized list gives us a glimpse of the benefits inherent in such a system, and also acts as a handy barometer to test the employer’s current disciplinary process.
Such a workplace conflict system must, in a measurable manner, be immediately operational once designed and implemented, must show real and measurable benefits as far as workplace harmony, productivity, team creativity, cost and time management benefits, staff retention and morale and a host of other benefits. It should be customizable for different levels of employees, management teams and situations. It should wean the organization of a reliance on outside consultants for routine work, leaving such consultants to only attend to selected items of process maintenance such as upgrading, documentation compliancy and representation where required.
Above all, and we see this as the ultimate test of our own systems, such a process should teach us all to more successfully deal with conflict, a goal that is so urgently needed in our country. The current problems, conflict, costs and entrenched polarization experienced in the workplace can be turned into a constructive energy, resulting in a workplace where conflict becomes a driver of deeper understanding, respect and growth for everyone. None of this has anything to do with rosy spectacles or sales pitches. It can be tested in the fires of the workplace itself, it can be tested in the tangible, measurable arenas where it should make a difference (profit, productivity, reduction of costs, workplace harmony) and, maybe above all, in your business playing a real role in reconciliation in South Africa.