Conflict, mediation and cultures of imperfection — In conversation with Sarah Naidoo-Banks
Business psychologist, mediator and You Can Now associate coach Sarah Naidoo-Banks shares some some perspectives on workplace conflict, alongside some actionable approaches to managing, and making the most of it.
What first attracted you into the worlds of business psychology and mediation?
I worked in the homelessness sector after my philosophy degree and absolutely loved the job. Community outreach got me really interested in working with people, and because of that I decided to study psychology.
After my Masters, I got my start in talent and leadership development, and was regularly pulled into sessions where there’d been tensions in the team. They were essentially emotional intelligence workshops and, after a while, I found myself getting more interested in the area.
Creating spaces for self-reflection, and for people to have honest conversations with themselves and their team was hugely rewarding, and so training in mediation was a clear next step.
Where do workplace conflicts usually stem from?
Tensions often come about when people have different preferences about how they want to work, different workplace values, or different ways of communicating. And it’s rarely just one thing.
In her book Fierce Conversations, Susan Scott gives a good explanation based on a line from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Relationships fail, or succeed, “gradually then suddenly.” In other words, conflict begins with a series of small tensions that distance relationships — things like ‘they didn’t include me in the email,’ or ‘they interrupted me in the meeting.’ Then, suddenly, there’s a spark that takes it from tension to conflict.
What misconceptions tend to spark that chain of small failures?
A common thing is people thinking the other person was difficult on purpose. They make the assumption that the other person behaved the way that they did intentionally.
What’s amazing is when two people in conflict start a conversation, and each of them realise the other person wasn’t doing it intentionally and begin to understand perspective of the other person. They also get to talk about their own experience, which they may not have had a chance to do previously. They had a lot of other stuff going on behind the scenes the other person wasn’t aware of.
There were just different communication preferences, different values. It definitely wasn’t about “I’m out to get this person because I don’t like them.”
"Relationships fail, or succeed, 'gradually then suddenly.' In other words, conflict begins with a series of small tensions that distance relationships. Then, suddenly, there’s a spark that takes it from tension to conflict."
Is there some initial guidance you might offer people who are finding a tension or conflict escalating?
Every situation is unique, so it’s difficult to recommend an all-purpose first step. But I would say self-reflection is really, really helpful if you want to de-escalate conflict.
Ask yourself some questions like ‘What is my intention?’ ‘What is it that I really want from this conversation, if I’m going to have one?’ ‘What’s my role been?’ And that last one is especially tricky, but it’s important to reflect on.
And also asking yourself ‘If I have this conversation, what are the risks and the benefits?’ The benefit might be authenticity, being true to yourself. But the risk might be that the other person doesn’t want to hear what you’ve got to say, or it might cause more of a ruckus than you wanted.
My advice would be to think about the perspective of the other person as much as possible. It doesn’t mean that you have to agree with them, but, if you can understand where they’re coming from, it gives you choices about the actions available.
Conflict is often framed as a necessary evil or a positive good. What’s your take on it?
Conflict is a given. People will always disagree over things or have different ways of doing things. If that’s not spoken about or acknowledged, or if it’s not given the opportunity to be worked through constructively, then it will fester and become toxic.
But healthy conflict is a gift. When you have a little bit of tension or conflict with a friend or a partner, you actually get to know each other better. It builds a closeness and an opportunity to learn about each other.
The same applies in the workplace. Let’s say if you’ve got two people working on a creative project in the workplace. One person’s meticulous, massively detail oriented, conscientious to the extreme. They’re the person who gets really frustrated with errors in reports, missed deadlines, or if there’s not a structure to the way their team is working.
And then you’ve got somebody else who’s hugely creative, big picture thinking, has loads of ideas and energy, and maybe they’re the kind of person who’s a bit chaotic, likes to do things last minute, and isn’t always so good with small details.
You can see there that both of those approaches have huge strengths, but might clash if they were working together. However, if they can work through the conflict constructively, they can produce something beyond what each of them could have created individually.
"Healthy conflict is a gift. When you have a little bit of tension or conflict with a friend or a partner, you actually get to know each other better. It builds a closeness and an opportunity to learn about each other."
The fear of conflict can be a huge block to giving feedback, which I know is another topic you’re interested in and run training on with us at You Can Now. Why else do you think people are so hesitant to give or receive feedback?
One of the key blocks to receiving feedback is intention. I’m relatively open to feedback, but, when I feel a bit closed off to it, it’s usually because I’m not sure the person giving it has the most helpful intentions.
A good intention might be to give them food for thought, or help them with their growth and their learning. People on the receiving end of feedback pick up on good intention, just as they can pick up on when the giver doesn’t have their best interests at heart.
But hesitancy around giving feedback is mostly rooted in confidence. People often lack confidence when they give feedback because they’re not sure what to say or what language to use, especially if it’s tricky feedback. They’ll ask themselves questions like ‘Am I right? Am I justified? Am I really in a position to give this feedback? How do I articulate it?’ And they might worry about how it might be received by the other person.
Creating a safe culture of feedback can be difficult, especially if one doesn’t always exist. What’s the best first step that managers or employees can take to implement one?
This goes back to the psychologist Amy Edmondson’s work around ‘psychological safety.’ One of the key things about psychological safety in the workplace is promoting a culture of imperfection. None of us are perfect, but sometimes the expectation, from ourselves or from our manager, is to be perfect all the time.
So my advice to managers and employees would be to make it okay to not be perfect. Make it okay to get things wrong.
One of the things Edmondson talks about is intelligent failure. If you take a risk and it doesn’t go your way, ask yourself what you’ve learned from it - take something away. Allowing for intelligent failure and risk-taking is really important, and it’s key that managers are leading by example, that they’re role-modelling the vulnerability of imperfection, of not knowing all the answers, of taking risks from time to time.
"Allowing for intelligent failure and risk-taking is really important, and it’s key that managers are leading by example, that they’re role-modelling the vulnerability of imperfection, of not knowing all the answers, of taking risks from time to time."
The third thing is to create a culture where it’s okay to challenge anybody and any part of the organisation. It’s linked to psychological safety. The example Edmondson gives in The Fearless Organisation is the NASA Columbia explosion. An engineer thought something was wrong, raised it with a 'higher up' and was told they were wrong. The enquiry after the disaster revealed a hugely hierarchical organisation where junior workers didn’t feel safe or able to challenge people in more senior positions.
What’s the most common thing that people giving feedback get wrong?
The first thing would be not asking how the other person likes to receive it. Understanding that is really important. Some people appreciate a more direct approach, some like a little more coaching, but whatever it is it’s helpful to know.
Not asking for permission is another. For example if I’ve just delivered a presentation that didn’t go very well and someone wanted to give me feedback, asking me something like ‘is now a good time?’ or ‘is it okay to give some quick feedback?’ gives me control over when that feedback happens. It’s on my terms, and I feel prepared for it.
In your opinion, is there something managers can do to improve the world of work for future generations?
Yes. I think that culturally, previously and currently, we talk about performance management. I think that’s quite an outdated concept. It’s still going to be relevant moving forward, but I think it's more about building a culture of performance development, and even what you might call performance partnership.
Historically, the manager would be responsible for the performance of the team, but you can’t ever really be responsible for the performance of another individual. Only that individual can be responsible for their own performance.
So what managers can do is create the conditions for people to be their best. It’s all about creating the right environment and working in partnership with people to get the best out of each other.
Work culture is heading that way already, but I also think that it’s going to be increasingly important for organizations to embrace performance partnership, especially as younger generations move into the workplace.