According to research published by ACAS, the cost to the economy of workplace conflict was £28.5bn in 2020. That number is based upon amongst other factors, people leaving their jobs, rehiring, the cost of grievance processes, litigation, sickness absence from stress and lost productivity. It is estimated that 40% of work-related stress is due to inappropriate workplace behaviours which only serves to contribute to the poor mental health crisis the UK faces. The pandemic has placed Mental Health and Wellbeing as a top priority for many organisations; however, without examining the possible contributory behaviours that exist in the organisation, the challenge will continue treating the symptom not the cause.
Despite most organisations having anti bullying policies in place, CIPD stated in 2021 that 27% of the UK workforce have experienced workplace bullying and as many as 53% say they have experienced bullying or harassment in the last three years but not reported it. Most worryingly, according to Professor Christine Porath from Georgetown University, 25% of people who have experienced conflict in the workplace admit to taking their frustrations out on customers. Therefore, the cost of these negative experiences could be seriously impacting the human experience inside and outside your organisation, affecting your bottom line, without you even being aware of it.
What is going wrong?
As Brewdog discovered in 2021, despite claims to be a ‘people first’ employer, toxic and bullying behaviours were publicly exposed by unhappy employees. The best efforts of organisational intent and values were disconnected with actual behaviours and conduct. HR create policies, people initiatives, surveys and training, all in support of ‘good’ corporate behaviours. Often these fall short in practice because they become tick box HR exercises and are not seen as an organisation wide responsibility.
There is a wide spectrum of reasons that mean inappropriate behaviours can surface. At one end, some individuals are simply unaware of the impact of their behaviours; others might be taking their lead from ineffective role models. At the other end of the spectrum, organisations may blindly deny the existence of poor conduct either through lack of awareness or for more deceitful, political, or financially motivated reasons.
What is the answer?
There is growing awareness from responsible organisations that commitment to making things better and demonstrating upstanding behaviours at an organisational and individual level is a powerful way to build credibility, trust, and value for businesses. It takes courage and compassion to address and understand the impact of behaviours in the workplace. There is no one single intervention that will magically transform the human experience but adopting these ten strategies will go a long way to help.
1) Set the tone from the top
Positive intent is not enough. Board members and executive teams must role model the behaviours expected throughout the rest of the organisation. Change requires commitment from the top, for leaders to be held to account for their own behaviours and the humility to accept that their management style may not be working.
Does your leadership team have the skills they need to lead your current and future organisation? How do you know? Are you asking each other and thus comforted by group-think, or are you being brave and asking your stakeholders what they really think? Better that your employees advise you of what is working well, where improvements need to be made, and to give you a chance to course correct, rather than to take to social media with a damming open letter.
2) Upskill and educate your managers
Do you know the difference between incivility, a microaggression or ‘office banter’? Are you confident that your teams would know what behaviours might be seen as workplace bullying? Are managers struggling to hold performance conversations as they are now worried about what they can and can’t say or do?
As the movement for more compassionate and courageous workplaces strengthens, many people are unaware of what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. At the first sign of inappropriate behaviour, you can bet that employees will get themselves informed and then you potentially have a problem.
Where threats, humiliation and intimidation are treated as psychological abuse in a domestic relationship, there is growing pressure for legislation to outlaw these behaviours at work. Socially conscious organisations need their people to be aware of the latest thinking, research and attitudes that influence the human experiences in the workplace.
3) Understand the current reality from the perspectives of employees, leavers, contractors, and customers
You may love your job and your personal experience of the workplace may well fill you with a sense of belonging and fulfilment, but do you know if your colleagues would be able to say the same? Whilst ‘human experience’ is not the same thing as employee or customer satisfaction, without a positive human experience of the workplace, it will be difficult to feel engaged. An objective and anonymised audit can help uncover the true reality that informs the actual culture of an organisation, not just what leadership thinks it is.
4) Take a systematic approach to applying the right intervention at the right time
It is tempting to dive into popular people initiatives in response to social and media opinion. For example, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion programmes are, quite rightly, a focus for businesses reconsidering their priorities in support of creating more people centric cultures. But if the underlying workplace environment is one where people feel uncomfortable or not appreciated for being themselves, or worse, are fearful of speaking up, then these initiatives will not work effectively.
By adopting a systematic approach to the design, delivery, uptake, and impact of interventions, and, importantly, understanding the context of the environment they are being applied in, then these crucial interventions have a chance to deliver their desired outcomes and not be perceived as knee jerk reactions.
5) Build for the future generation now
One of the challenges of the multi-generational workplace is that the emerging workforce are often dismissed as being too ‘pc’ or too ‘sensitive.’ What if they are actually enlightened and simply not prepared to tolerate poor conduct previous generations have put up with? And let us not forget, the incoming generation is not just our future workforce, but our future customers, suppliers, investors and leaders who will share similar views.
6) Define the behaviours expected alongside your Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)
What behaviours do people expect from their leadership team, and what do they not want to see or experience?
Have you analysed your work-related stress instances and compared these with the levels of complaint, informal or otherwise, about bullying, or poor conduct? How about the rate of churn in the organisation with customer satisfaction?
It is well documented that there are causal links in these examples, but rarely does an organisation have the skills, ability, time or indeed sample size to know what works.
Where there are many KPIs or OKRs that have traditionally been acceptable measures of outputs, examining behaviours or Health KPIs appropriate for the expectations of the workplace can be a good indicator of future performance.
7) Share and exchange practice outside your organisation
To measure and improve which interventions are most effective, sharing best practice approaches with the wider cultural community is a rich resource of information and learning. The best leaders are externally focussed and seek outside ideas to innovate their internal practices. Join communities and platforms with like-minded professionals committed to change and improvement.
8) Use early intervention coaching before the grievance process
As anyone who has been through a grievance process will tell you, the policy serves as a legal structure to follow that minimises the risk on the employer of a negative outcome at a potential employment tribunal. It is not designed to diffuse conflict. In most instances, current process and policies are applied too late when damage has been done and one or both parties end up leaving. To minimise the potential for conflict to escalate, consider bringing in early intervention coaching, with external, qualified professionals, at the very first instance of conduct issues arising. These resolution focused sessions can help both, or all, parties concerned understand the impact of behaviours and find appropriate remedies quickly.
9) Policy and process wording
The very fact that the typical conflict resolution process in a business is called a ‘grievance’ policy makes it an adversarial process for all involved from the outset. Product development and sales functions in a business will use the term ‘solution’ focused, not ‘objections focused,’ so why not implement a resolution approach when referring to conflict and build in the early intervention steps as outlined in point five?
10) Be relentless
In the same way that sustained lifestyle changes achieve long term physical health goals and one-off gym classes don’t, there is no quick fix to achieving a healthy organisation and optimising the human experience in the workplace.
Karl Simons OBE, formerly Chief Health and Safety Executive of Thames Water, stated that “No one single initiative will make you achieve the results you want, you need to be relentless over consecutive years.”
Is your organisation ready?
A radical, courageous and long-term approach is required by businesses to really understand the influence that behaviours have on culture and engagement and to prevent inappropriate behaviour undermining organisational success. Leaders can take action now by looking up and outside their own organisation and joining the growing community of influencers driving the importance of the human experience in future workplace.
To find out how we can support your leadership teams and organisation to develop a culture that improves human experience, take a look at our Executive and Leadership Development Programmes, or call us on 01491 414010.