Human factors

Catalysing civility – resolving workplace conflict

Mediator Owen Bubbers-Jones explains how resolving team conflict can boost staff wellbeing and patient safety

Intersecting human profiles
  • Date: 25 July 2023
  • |
  • 5 minute read

‘CIVILITY saves lives’ - it’s a bold, if broad claim by the eponymous campaign.

As a workplace mediator who supports healthcare professionals to navigate challenging interpersonal issues, I agree.

Mediation and other types of workplace conflict resolution processes offer valuable opportunities to sow seeds of civility in otherwise difficult working relationships and team dynamics. Civility can and does have a profound effect on the performance and wellbeing of staff and, in turn, the safety of patients.

How might conflict resolution support staff working in secondary care to reduce stress and unconstructive behaviours by colleagues that undermine civility?

Freedom to speak up

One common factor is a power imbalance between participants - explicit or implicit, formal or informal. This can be particularly relevant in clinical settings where pronounced hierarchical structures exist amongst staff and can make it harder to address important topics for fear of the possible consequences.

The process and role of the facilitator are designed to create a ‘safe-enough’ space for staff to speak up constructively and honestly even when such conversations cut across managerial lines. This is made possible in part through ensuring that all parties have equal opportunity to speak and be heard throughout the process – to be treated equally and feel empowered to ‘name’ and explore those very imbalances if they would like to.

Naming what may have remained unsaid up until that point helps to begin normalising the very dynamics that often shape working relationships.

Identifying underlying needs

Mediation can help people to get to the heart of the issue, rather than circling around it as can often happen in day-to-day workplace conversations and even in more formal processes.

A competent facilitator works with parties to move beyond simplistic positional statements that can leave them feeling stuck in a zero-sum competition, and to identify and unpack underlying needs that drive behaviours, often unconsciously.

In most situations, each of us will have more than one need that we are seeking to meet. Moving to a needs-based conversation not only helps participants to drill down to what is really going on in their working relationship, but also to better understand how to creatively go about meeting some of those needs. Remember that parties in conflict often have overlapping needs – much to their surprise – each of which can potentially be met in multiple ways.

In other words, mediation offers a more nuanced and ultimately more effective approach for changing unconstructive behaviours at a deep level.

Discarding the old, developing the new

Conflict resolution processes can act as a catalyst for creativity and momentum when it comes to developing new ways of working. Often in conflict-type situations, frustration has simmered over time as a result of processes and policies remaining in place that are no longer fit for purpose.

This is particularly relevant currently, when pre-pandemic ways of working have often carried over into the new age of hybrid working. Many teams continue to struggle to find quality time to come together to assess what is working and what needs to change, leading to significant frustration building over time.

In practice, it can often take a process such as mediation to create the space, permission and focus to step back from the daily busy-ness of work life and assess what needs to happen next for the betterment of staff as well as the organisation.

For example, ongoing shortages may result in a struggle to recruit new staff. Initially, employees may rally well to cover additional duties. Yet over time, weariness and concern build as it becomes clear that temporary fixes are in practice becoming more permanent fixtures. Coming together as a team with an impartial facilitator can not only address simmering emotions, but also lead to creative conversations that instil confidence and clarity, such as how to experiment with new recruitment strategies and approaches in the fight for staff talent.

The broader impact of conflict resolution

Conflict resolution plays a key role in terms of reducing stress and the impact of unconstructive behaviours in the workplace across healthcare and beyond.

ACAS estimates that 9.7 million employees experienced workplace conflict in the UK in 2018 to 2019 – the most recent year for which data is currently available.

Of those surveyed, 56 per cent reported experiencing stress, depression and/or anxiety and 40 per cent felt less motivated in their respective roles as a result, contributing to significant levels of presenteeism. However, 74 per cent of respondents who underwent mediation stated that their dispute had “been fully or largely resolved”.

Whilst the report authors are deliberately conservative in their conclusions, they are clear in their observation of “a clear link between the wellbeing of employees and organisational effectiveness”.

In conclusion, it’s all about creating the conditions for civility to flourish – promoting workplaces in which trust, mutual understanding and collaboration are the norm for the betterment of all staff as well as patients.

Explore this topic further

This page was correct at the time of publication. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

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