By Zandy Fell
At The Zalt Group we are in the business of workplace conflict resolution and after facilitating hundreds of mediations and difficult conversations over decades, we recognise patterns that lead workers to a place of conflict. This in turn can teach us plenty about the most effective ways to keep the peace.
When we mediate, we capture the participants agreements and their requests of each other for how to improve things. Often this relates to how to rebuild trust in their working relationship. So, we analysed these participant agreements.
Interestingly, when analysing what participants want and agree to when it comes to getting their workplace relationships back on track, six common areas keep coming up. Some of them seem super simple. These recommendations foster relationships and rapport which helps people build trust which is critical for growing a team and business. We are choosing to share them because if you have a relationship you need to strengthen, we recommend that you try these. If you are coaching someone, they will prove helpful and if you’re managing a conflict, you may even demand them!
1. Invest in basic workplace etiquette
In 90 per cent of mediation agreements, both parties request and agree to some form of resumption of basic etiquette norms. People often simply agree to things like:
- greeting one another
- smiling and making eye contact
- making an effort to connect, for example engage in brief chit chat about the footy, the weather or Netflix
- resume talking with each other e.g., “how was your weekend?”
- respond to each other’s emails
- turning towards people and giving full attention when they are talking.
Even if it’s awkward, both parties typically agree to it and these simple things can make a big difference in making the workplace enjoyable.
Often participants present with scenarios like:
- “… you don’t even make eye contact with me or say hello when I pass you in the office…”
- “… you go silent if I attempt to join in a conversation about the weekend…” or
- “… you greet everyone else on the zoom call but not me…”
These statements signal communication breakdown and relationship strain. They are often noticed by others in the workplace, not just the person experiencing it. Collectively they add up and while it may seem little in isolation, it’s often one of the first things shared with me in preparing for a discussion.
This process involves accepting it may feel awkward committing to push through it until such a point as the relationship gradually changes. Sometimes it also helps to plan what to talk about when you next see the person.
So, perhaps consider how’s the hygiene on basic workplace etiquette in the relationships you question?
2. Don’t talk negatively about other people
Another reasonable request we often hear in the mediation space is “I want them to stop talking about me.” Mistrust, reputational damage, conflict contamination on to others in the workplace are all bi-products of speaking negatively about others. Being spoken about poorly by others is also a common human fear.
A shared agreement to not to talk negatively about each other to colleagues in the workplace is another frequent flyer in our analysis.
When having difficulty with someone at work, there may be a need to talk to someone else. That is okay. However, it is important find the right person to talk with, rather than venting to colleagues, who most likely will identify it as whingeing. While it can be a natural instinct to want to talk to someone when going through a difficult time with a colleague, it’s likely to be more fruitful to talk to a trusted advisor. A mentor or dedicated colleague who you consistently seek advice and who respects the need to keep the support they provide confidential is likely more beneficial.
Key questions to ponder are:
- How are you talking about those you may have a strained relationship?
- Who are you talking to?
- How is that helping you really?
3. Set up structured communication when relationships are strained
As humans, we often avoid what is uncomfortable so we might say “…let’s cancel or postpone today’s meeting…” because being in close proximity with the colleague you aren’t on good terms with is the last thing you want to do. However, often it’s a counter intuitive strategy. It later presents in mediation as “…we are meant to meet fortnightly for supervision but in the last year we’ve only met five times. What does that tell you?…”
When you’re not getting along with a colleague, there may be a will to avoid them.
However, setting up some communication structure and commitment on when and how both parties meet can help relieve the pressure and refocus the energy and effort.
Committing to meetings and structured communication is frequently in the agreements we facilitate and key to normalising behaviours and relationships again. It also gives participants certainty on the rhythms of contact in the short term.
This often takes the form of agreeing to meeting frequency, purpose, structure etc. It might mean there is more formality than is usual in such meetings, and other times less formality. I had one agreement that included an informal coffee once a month at any coffee shop in a 3km radius that had cheesecake on the menu. It also means that if you say you’re meeting weekly, you follow through on this commitment.
In addition, providing structure and clear guidelines around the meeting can help both parties. This may include preparing an agenda or we often recommend an agenda item (at least for a little while) titled ‘How are we going?’ which gives a space to raise ‘what works’ and ‘what doesn’t’, so there is a way of addressing concerns in a structured and orderly way that leads to continuous improvement.
Often these meetings are set for a period of time, possibly four meetings, at which stage it is agreed they will be reviewed by the participants and a joint decision made on whether they should continue and how to make the meetings more effective.
4. Share with each other how you like feedback to be conveyed
Feedback involves the art of giving or receiving difficult messages. Approximately 7 out of 10 conflict conversations we facilitate involve feedback in the relationship dynamic. Giving feedback can be a sensitive matter simply because on some level you are suggesting the other needs to change.
When relationships are strained it can be extra challenging to manage feedback. Therefore, it’s important to understand feedback preferences and to commit to conveying feedback according to those preferences.
So, what do we learn from our mediation outcomes? Agreeing to how feedback will be shared is often needed as it’s likely it will need to happen again and can be tricky – particularly where there is a track record.
If feedback is delivered in a way that is to an individual’s preferences, it’s seen as respectful. For example, an employee may request feedback in a timely manner with specific examples and in face-to-face forums. If this process is honoured, it helps with communication for all involved.
So, taking the time to think about a colleague’s preferences or even sharing your own is a way of building up and fortifying a relationship moving forward. If you can do this prior to content getting in the way, or before you have a live issue, even better!
5. Have an escalation point to discuss issues moving forward
During mediation, conflicting parties are often comforted knowing there is someone to help them in the future when issues arise. A third party can provide fresh perspective and can help avoid repeating the same negative patterns and consequences.
It may be a manager, or someone in P&C or a mutually trusted and respected colleague to assist with future conflict. A third party, such as a Zalt Group mediator, might be identified as the most appropriate person to discuss interpersonal relationship issues moving forward, while a direct report discusses content issues.
6. Give the other person benefit of the doubt
Another common complaint in workplace conflict is:
- “…they have spent six months thinking everything I do is with ill intent. I just need them to stop that thinking…” or
- “…he assumes I do the wrong thing by him on purpose every time. Perhaps he could just start to think maybe that’s not the case or there is a valid reason…”
Intentions are very powerful and choosing a mindset shift whereby someone gives the other person the benefit of the doubt can be a game changer for any relationship. Previous relationship breakdown can lead to negative intent and second guessing the other. When your relationship is positive with a colleague you will naturally interpret their behaviour towards you positively.
Offering positive intent and benefit of the doubt means we stop making assumptions and cease assuming people are doing things for the wrong reasons, and rather we may be pleasantly surprised that people are doing things for the right reasons. The longer conflict has occurred, the more challenging it may be for someone to shift their mindset.
So, if there is someone you aren’t quite trusting at work perhaps this one is for you. Would you benefit from adjusting your own mindset. Obviously, this isn’t suited to every workplace scenario. However, from the analysis of agreed action items, it is often one participants put on their list while agreeing to be mindful that a benefit of the doubt mindset can provide relief for all parties.
Simple checklist for rebuilding trust and good workplace relationships
Trust in a working relationship is highly prized. It’s challenging to clearly define it, but you know when you have it and you know when you don’t have it, and there is something in between.
We often meet colleagues who simply don’t trust one another and for myriad reasons. It takes effort and emotional intelligence to make relationships work. So, the next time you feel challenged by a colleague, consider applying one or all of the following tips.
- Invest in basic workplace etiquette
- Don’t talk negatively about other people
- Set up structured communication when relationships are strained
- Share with each other how you like feedback to be conveyed
- Have an escalation point to discuss issues moving forward.
- Give the other person the benefit of the doubt.
Want to know more tips to rebuild relationships in conflict? Have a relationship needing strengthening? Do you have a conversation that needs to be facilitated now? Be in touch.