“In any other workplace…”

gressenhall 1When people learn that I work in conflict resolution, they are often eager to tell me about the conflicts in their workplace.  I hear about bad behaviour, bullying, rudeness, and the description usually builds to the following declaration:

“In any other workplace, this person would have been fired long ago!

And at this point I have to smile, and suppress the urge to roll my eyes.

I have heard this claim from people in large organizations and small, unionized and non-unionized, industrial and academic.  Many people are under the impression that their workplace is uniquely dysfunctional and that the person they have told me about – whether a supervisor, co-worker, or employee – is distinctively awful.  The unfortunate reality is that bad behaviour in the workplace is widespread, and no matter how often I hear about it, my heart always goes out to those affected.  Workplace strife and conflict take a terrible toll, not only on the financial well-being of organizations, but also on the mental and physical health of everyone who must deal with it.

While the claim that things would be different in “any other workplace” is not literally true, it does point to an underlying fact about workplace conflict.  Although every unhappy workplace (like every unhappy family) may be unhappy in its own way, certain structural factors in organizations make workplace conflict particularly difficult to manage.  Let me just mention two:

First, the offending person is likely to be perceived as providing great value to the organization.  Maybe he or she is the top salesperson, or has some hard-to-replace set of skills, or is well-connected within upper management.  Whatever value this person brings is perceived as making up for or out-weighing the grief that he or she causes.

The key word here is “perceived.”  It is an open question whether the “value” that a conflict-prone employee brings to an organization really out-weighs their overall cost.  If someone took the time to crunch the numbers, they might be surprised at how they work out.  In his book, The No Asshole Rule, Robert Sutton tells the story of a men’s clothing store in which the top salesman was an overbearing jerk and made life miserable for the other employees.  When he was finally let go, the store’s overall sales actually rose.  Although this person was an effective salesman, his incivility and bad behaviour prevented others from succeeding.  Sutton has many similar stories.

Second, there is often a view that, since it is “impossible” to get rid of the conflict-prone person, there is no point in confronting him or her about their actions or in hoping for any kind of behavioural change.

Is it really “impossible” for an organization to discipline or dismiss a conflict-prone employee?  Only your HR specialist or employment lawyer may know for certain.  As for the hope of behavioural change, I will say only that it will not happen if the employee in question is never confronted about his or her actions.  Conflict-prone employees often lack insight into the effect they have on others.  They may genuinely not realize that their behaviour is unacceptable.  If you are the supervisor of an employee who makes coming to work an ordeal for others and you have not discussed this with him or her, then (sad to say) you are part of the problem.

If a person in a position of power really believes that things would be different “in any other workplace,” then it may be time to ask what is holding your organization back from attempting positive change.