Welcome to HEN - Transforming Conflict for our Health, Environment, Negotiation
HEN is published each month by Julia Menard:
Helping the Workplace Engage - One Tough Conversation at a Time! juliamenard.com
HEN arrives at the full moon -
because light transforms darkness.
Full Moon: January 15, 2014 - Year 12, Issue 1
Table of Contents:
1. HEALTH - Social Exclusion
About 10 years ago, researchers discovered that the pain of being excluded is not so different from the pain of physical injury. Through a series of fMRI brain scans, researchers saw that subjects experienced brain activity similar to being in pain even when they only thought they were being rejected.
This came to mind recently as I’ve been reviewing the new rules in BC requiring all employers to prevent and address bullying and harassment. These new policies came from WorkSafeBC, the provincial organization responsible for ensuring workers have safe work environments.
These new policies and guidelines have only been in effect since November 1 – but have far reaching implications for civility in our workplaces.
One aspect of bullying and harassment, which will probably get a lot more attention, is social exclusion. I’ve known of many people who, if they are upset with someone’s behaviour at work, stop talking with them. They may stop greeting them in the morning, stop asking about the weekend, or perhaps even stop making eye contact.
When I’ve been brought in to do mediation, I sometimes hear this as a strategy to “give the other person space.” Or I might hear that “so and so” is so hard to get along with, it’s best to ignore them.
To compound things, a favourite strategy for how to deal with conflict at work is to ask people to stop talking with each other. By the time I get called in, people may not have been talking for 6 months – or in some cases – for years.
WorkSafeBC does not dictate what bullying and harassment looks like but does offer examples of what conduct or comments “might” be bullying and harassment. They include: "verbal aggression or insults, calling someone derogatory names, vandalizing personal belongings, and spreading malicious gossip or rumours."
They say this is “not a complete list” and “other, more subtle behaviours, such as patterns of targeted social isolation, might also be considered bullying and harassment if they are humiliating or intimidating and fit the definition set out in the OHS policies.”
The new legislation is an opportunity to reflect on what behaviours move us towards more connection, respect, and compassion, and which behaviours don’t.
According to Dr. Lynn Todman, there is research “showing that when people feel like they’re being excluded, they lose their willingness to self-regulate.”
So, the pattern goes – I don’t like your behaviour so I ignore you. I ignore you and you lose some willingness to self-regulate. You lose that ability and I ignore you more. You lose more willingness. Down the rabbit hole we go.
In a book called The Social Outcast: Ostracism, Social Exclusion, Rejection, and Bullying, the authors outlined 4 concepts that go into creating a social outcast:
As the authors mention, every aspect of our daily lives contain the potential for some sort of ostracism. In the workplace, colleagues may deliberately or inadvertently fail to answer our e-mails or exclude us from after-hours social gatherings. Children as young as four years old even use “You’re not my friend!” as the ultimate power weapon.
- ostracism – refers to being ignored and excluded
- social exclusion – refers to not being included within a given social network (but not necessarily ignored)
- rejection is usually an explicit verbal or physical action that declares that the individual is not wanted as a member within a relationship or group
- bullying usually involves others’ aversive focus on an individual, and often is accompanied by physical, verbal and nonverbal abuse of an individual
It seems social exclusion and rejection are a fundamental part of our social existence. In fact, the authors say 67% of a representative U.S. sample admitted using the silent treatment (deliberately not speaking to another person in their presence).
Yet, they are also clear that being rejected, excluded, and ignored has shown in research to have detrimental effects on thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.
WorkSafeBC has allowed a lot of flexibility for employers to get more specific about what behaviours don’t work in the workplace. My hope is that more employers, supervisors, and employees will realize exclusion is painful and expect inclusion - whether conflict exists or not.
"Inclusion creates a relationship and cultural context where peace can flourish."
… Judith Snow, Founder, International Association for Inclusive Citizenship
2. ENVIRONMENT - Planning Food Together
There’s a small story going around the internet lately about a photo of Switzerland showing many green plots of land and talking about “foodscaping”.
Foodscaping is like landscaping – only using food.
When I researched where this photo came from and what they do exactly in Switzerland, I was amused to find out the photo itself is probably not even in Switzerland! People in Geneva were writing in blog comments saying it didn’t look anything like where they lived (even the quadrants listed in one link was not where it said it was).
What I took from that (in addition to the garbled nature of information on the internet) is the heart-felt desire people must feel for this vision. The key sentence that seems to accompany the photo wherever it is posted is this:
“Each yard is a vegetable garden and neighbors plan together what each will grow so they can trade and have a wide variety to eat.”
Although I can't find any detail about how the Swiss plan and share food as neighbours, it must be an idea which touches people to be making the rounds as it is!
So, why not our neighourhoods?
How would we do this?
One ingredient, I believe, is to continue to grow our neighbourly relations. Recently, in my own food growing group, a neighbour of mine and I put out an invitation for an Ukrainian Christmas Celebration. People brought different ingredients and a lot of communal cooking happened. Then we broke bread together (dipped bread, shot spelt berries up at my ceiling, stuck a candle in bread, and other peculiarly Ukrainian activities).
That is only one of a myriad of experiences that have sprouted out of the deepening relationships we have as a result of coming together over food growing these last 5 years. Just before Christmas, one of our elder members died. We all knew about it as our member’s wife let us know through our email network. We now know when his celebration of life will be and are united in our sadness in his passing and in our wanting to pay tribute as fitting.
Then there is the neighbour who, 5 years ago (just as Gorge Tillicum Urban Farmers starting taking off) knocked on doors and asked her neighbours if she could use their backyards to grow food. In exchange she’d give them some of the produce. That idea blossomed into Donald Street Farm - a farm right in the middle of our residential neighbourhood.
My vision is a farm on every street.
This rogue story gives me hope!
In the meantime, I will go back to tilling and tending my plot of neighbourly relations!
“We can begin by doing small things at the local level, like planting community gardens or looking out for our neighbors. That is how change takes place in living systems, not from above but from within, from many local actions occurring simultaneously.”
... Grace Lee Boggs
3. NEGOTIATION - Working as a Third Sider
Recently, I was finishing up a coaching series with a leader in a large organization.
Throughout our coaching, she’d been aware of a conflict brewing between a colleague of hers and the boss. This conflict got to the point where the colleague was apparently “telling stories” about teammates and the boss. The boss was complaining to my client about not knowing what to do with this out-of-control employee. The colleague was complaining to my client of being hamstrung by unnecessary and slow-moving management.
Does this sound like a typical workplace scenario?
The details might be different and the players’ positions of authority varies, but people complaining to each other about each other in the workplace is an everyday occurrence.
What to do with that complaining is another story!
The language of complaint has hidden within it an opportunity.
When you've listened to enough sides of a conflict, you start to realize every story has multiple sides to it. What is remarkable to me is when those not directly involved in a conflict – yet living in the midst of it – can hold both perspectives as well. Therein lies the opportunity.
This is exactly the thin line my client (and others I talk with) walked on. She understood her boss’s pain. This direct report did have an aggressive kind of communication style and wasn’t doing herself any favours. She also understood the direct report. This colleague was feeling ostracized by the boss and other members of the small team. She was starting to think she had no other choice but to start going around her boss and teammates.
My client bravely chose the third side. She not only actively kept the dialogue open between the parties, but she also acted as a conciliator with the other team members. She supported the boss. She coached the colleague. She stretched the perspectives of her teammates.
The only problem is … that’s exhausting!
In a culture and workplace that does not realize the value of third siders, my client is on her own. Taking an active role in “someone else’s” conflict is not widely recognized as an heroic act!
When we first started coaching together, my client was unsure as to whether her peace-making steps were even appropriate. By the end, she was buoyed by the affirmation and support – and at the same time – realizing the situation was much more complex than she could handle on her own.
Intense, protracted conflicts are often such for a reason. Adam Kahane, in his book Solving Tough Problems says conflicts are tough because they are complex and he describes 3 kinds of complexity:
- Dynamic Complexity. Kahane says: “A problem has low dynamic complexity if cause and effect are close together in space and time … a problem has high dynamic complexity if cause and effect are far apart in space and time.” In this situation, there was not a direct cause and effect between the colleague’s sometimes cavalier-seeming actions and the preliminary causes. There had been a whole series of events and systemic structures which were impacting cause and effect. That is going to make for complexity.
- Generative Complexity. Kahane: “A problem has low generative complexity if its future is familiar and predictable … A problem has high generative complexity if its future is unfamiliar and unpredictable.” In the kind of work environment this person’s team operates in (and in many workplaces these days) – cut-backs, lay-offs and re-orgs are common. This makes it more difficult to predict what tomorrow will bring and to create a cohesive vision that a team can coalesce around. Again, this uncertainty adds stress and complexity to what otherwise might have been a smaller problem. A team lacking cohesiveness is going to make it harder to have a forum to resolve issues.
- Social Complexity. Kahane: “A problem has low social complexity if the people who are part of the problem have common assumptions, values, rationales, and objectives … Problems of high social complexity cannot be peacefully solved by authorities from on high: the people involved must participate in creating and implementing solutions.” Again, my client is only one person – working hard to encourage the others individually to sit down together and talk things through. She doesn’t have the authority (or capacity) to lead everyone in a team conversation herself. So she struggles with having these individual conversations when what would really move the conflict along is for the whole team impacted to sit down and work it through.
In our more individualistic culture, we tend to think third parties of any kind have no place in our conflicts. So, it can be easy to think no one else is noticing our conflict and that no one else is affected. And if we just ignore it long enough, it will go away.
That's an illusion of our dominant culture. People are noticing and others are affected.
It can take a bucket full of courage to call a mediator when our culture doesn't support third side involvement.
Organizations can normalize conflict and the need for third side assistance by adjusting their policies. Policies that include a clause about mediation as an option if parties cannot agree - or if third siders see that parties are struggling in conflict – make it easier for conflicts to end earlier. The longer these complex problems continue to simmer, fester, and boil over, the more damage and the more difficult peace-making becomes.
When mediation can be seen as the professional development opportunity it truly is, our culture will have shifted. There is a great opportunity hidden in conflict, but just like a pearl clasped shut in the jaws of the oyster, this potential must be released. And the more complex the problem, the more help is needed.
For now, let's notice and celebrate those individuals like my client who actively advocate for more collaboration, more dialogue, and more peace in our work communities.
" 'Leadership' is a concept we often resist. It seems immodest, even self-aggrandizing, to think of ourselves as leaders. But if it is true that we are made for community, then leadership is everyone’s vocation, and it can be an evasion to insist that it is not. When we live in the close-knit ecosystem called community, everyone follows and everyone leads."
… Parker Palmer
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Julia Menard, B.A., Cert. Con. Res., P.C.C.
Leadership & Conflict Coaching, Mediating, & Training