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Navigating Workplace Conflict – Building Stronger Relationships


Welcome to our blog series on common job hazards. In this article, we’re diving into one prevalent psychosocial hazard that impacts us all – conflict or poor workplace relationships and interactions.

We will shed light on this workplace challenge, showing you where to start on the symptoms, and explore how you can foster healthier workplace dynamics through effective intervention and ongoing support.

Conflict or poor workplace relationships and interactions

Definition: Poor workplace relationships or interpersonal conflict can occur between managers, supervisors, co-workers or others.

Example: Rude comments between managers, supervisors, co-workers and others; unresolved conflict regarding work tasks, processes, customers, or other interpersonal issues.

Understanding Hazard Complexity

Workplace hazards can often interact in unexpected ways, making them a puzzle to solve. Conflict or poor relationships among colleagues can manifest in various forms, from subtle tensions to more overt issues.

But how do you even begin to address these complexities?

We’ll show you where to start and provide insights into recognising workplace symptoms.

The Power of Early Proactive Actions

Early intervention plays a pivotal role. We all know that prevention is better than finding a cure, and that’s especially true when it comes to workplace dynamics. Addressing incivility and informal complaints in their early stages can prevent them from turning into more serious problems like bullying, grievances, or formal complaints.

Incivility is often a pre-curser to workplace bullying and is important to address early, to reduce the likelihood of interpersonal tensions escalating.

Workplace incivility can be defined as, “behaviour that is low-intensity, unclearly harmful, violating mutual respect norms at work, marked by rudeness, disrespect, and disregard for others. It includes ignoring, excluding, demeaning language, interruptions, not listening, and unsociable attitudes. Its subtle nature can foster a toxic environment, reducing job satisfaction, raising stress, and lowering productivity (Andersson & Pearson, 1999)”.

Examples involve non verbals such as eye rolling, not greeting others, unkind comments, and ignoring people.

1. Leadership Support

Supportive leadership is key to enhancing workplace relationships. Leaders who adopt a transformational style, which emphasises inspiring and motivating their teams, play a crucial role in improving relationships and performance. By going beyond mere procedural adherence and offering genuine support and understanding, these leaders can effectively address and mitigate various workplace challenges, preventing conflicts and fostering a healthier work environment. Supportive leaders also will intervene early and authentically when problems in teams occur to reduce the risk of interpersonal issues.

Transformational Leadership: Leaders who inspire and motivate their teams often see improved relationships and performance.  This is one of many characteristics of leadership, a group process, that can achieve increased support for their team members and helps to reduce the impact of stressors experienced in their workplace (also knowns as a “protective factor”).

2. Promotion of Psychological Safety in Teams and across Organisations

Psychological safety is a term researched extensively by Professor Amy Edmonston.

It is defined as “the belief in the safety of taking interpersonal risks in team settings. It exists when members can freely express ideas, concerns, admit errors, and suggest innovations without fear of ridicule or punishment. It is a key aspect in promoting team innovation, learning, and performance. Teams with high psychological safety engage more in productive collaboration, learn from failures, and achieve shared objectives” (Edmondson, 1999; 2018).

This involves creating an environment where employees feel included, can learn, contribute, and challenge the status quo without fear of repercussions.  This is achieved through:

  1.    Inclusion Safety
  2.    Learner Safety
  3.    Contributor Safety
  4.    Challenger Safety
4 Stages of Psychological Safety

1. Inclusion Safety: Embracing every individual by valuing and accepting them for who they are.

For example, a team leader makes a conscious effort to learn about cultural differences and ensures all team meetings are scheduled at times that are inclusive for team members across different time zones. Additionally, the leader regularly checks in with each team member to understand their unique perspectives and contributions, emphasising that each voice is critical to the team’s success.

2. Learner Safety: Questions are comfortably asked, and individuals feel safe to experiment by trying new things.

For example, a company implements a continuous improvement policy for mistakes and instead of blaming, encourages a debriefing session where teams can discuss what went wrong, what was learned, and how to improve in the future. This practice ensures that individuals feel comfortable admitting mistakes and learning from them without fear of punishment.

3. Collaborator Safety: Environment that fosters constructive debate and provides for a constant and perpetual state of open dialogue.

For example, during project meetings, a facilitator ensures that everyone has a chance to speak and present their ideas. The team has established ground rules for respectful communication and constructive feedback, ensuring that debates are focused on ideas and solutions rather than personal criticisms.

4. Challenger Safety: Feeling safety to challenge the status quo and to do so with immunity from repercussions or reprisal.

For example, a team encourages innovation, thinking critically around new ideas and solutions. Open review and discussion would enable employees who ideas are implemented with recognition and reward. Also fostering an innovative environment will encourage constructive criticism about how things can be improved without fear of reprisal.

 Clark, T. R. (2020). The 4 stages of psychological safety: Defining the path to inclusion and innovation. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

3. Psychosocial Hazard Intervention: Employee Participation/Consultation

Enter Psychosocial Hazard intervention – a proactive approach to managing workplace health and safety under the Workplace Health and Safety Act. Through employee consultation and the application of compliance and the guidelines for managing psychosocial hazards (the Code), we aim to create a supportive and compliant work environment.

Encouraging open dialogue and active participation from employees ensures a more comprehensive understanding and management of these issues by finding opportunities to explore workplace systems and processes that may be adjusted to reduce the impact of workplace conflict.

For example, in hybrid teams, there may be a particular level, role, or team member within a team who systematically receives less contact or interaction with their team members or supervisor (e.g. part-time team member who doesn’t work on the days the team meets to explore the month ahead).  Systematically being isolated from the team (which is a hazard too) can reduce the effectiveness of communication, increasing the likelihood of conflict, and reduces the opportunity to recognise, and resolve, conflict.  Effective consultation can identify such an issue and team members can inform an alternative meeting rhythm and/or communication rhythm that becomes systematised and purpose-built to enable miscommunication to be proactively managed.

Key Takeaways

  • Workplace hazards, like conflicts and poor relationships, are complex and need a thoughtful approach
  • Early intervention can prevent minor issues from becoming major workplace problems
  • Supportive leadership can transform workplace dynamics positively, promoting psychological safety
  • Psychosocial Hazard intervention through Employee Participation/Consultation offers a proactive solution for workplace health and safety

Your Path to Healthier Workplace Relationships

In summary, conflict and poor workplace relationships are common job hazards that can have a profound impact on your organisation. Addressing these hazards requires more than just recognition; proactive action is needed.

Consider checking if your investment into Leadership Development programs includes evidence-based approaches that enable leaders, and their teams, to strengthen psychological safety and using purpose-built tools like a Psychosocial Hazard Current State Assessment or a Psychosocial Hazard Survey to identify the extent to which conflict may be negative impacting your employees, and how to progress.

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Andersson, L. M., & Pearson, C. M. (1999). Tit for Tat? The Spiraling Effect of Incivility in the Workplace. The Academy of Management Review, 24(3), 452-471.

Clark, T. R. (2020). The 4 stages of psychological safety: Defining the path to inclusion and innovation. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350-383.

Edmondson, A. (2018). The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.

Written by:
Jaki Gee Kee
Passionate about people and behaviour, Jaki draws on her organisational consulting experience to drive continuous improvement in onboarding, employee development, and workplace culture.