Is it smart to prevent conflict?

conflict prevention at work and in UN peacemaking - labourflaws.comBy Barbara du Preez-Ulmi. In 1987, the Kosovo conflict set off the disintegration of Yugoslavia. The former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia consisted of six republics whose borders were drawn along ethnic and historical lines after the Second World War: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia and Serbia. Serbia was further split into two autonomous provinces, Vojvodina and Kosovo. In Kosovo, the Albanian community (90% of the population) had been living under Serb police rule since the withdrawal of autonomy. The world feared that the ethno-national conflict could spill over into the entire region, possibly starting a new Balkan war that might widen with the drawing in of Turkey and Greece, and destabilise Macedonia.

At about the same time, United Nations Secretary- General Boutros Boutros-Gali argued that in light of the UN’s failure to protect civilians in the Rwanda genocide, the UN was to “seek to identify at the earliest possible stage situations that could produce conflict, and try through diplomacy to remove sources of danger before violence results”.   A new approach to peacekeeping emerged in 1993 with the deployment of a preventive force in Macedonia (UNPREDEP), resulting in the UN Peacemaker  and a Standby Team of UN Mediation Experts.

Conflict Prevention at Work

Now what does this have to do with your workplace? Quite a lot, actually. The emergence of a theory for conflict prevention at a global level and in the peace operations context in the 1990s started infiltrating the way we think about (potential) conflict situations  in all our areas of life, especially so in the workplace.

To a wide extent, the focus in a labour context is still on dismissal law, industrial action, rules and policies. In South Africa, still more labour-related disputes are reported to the CCMA or Bargaining Councils, than mediated at the workplace – or prevented in the first place. Anyone who has ever been at a labour tribunal to sort out their dispute will know that most cases result in a separation of the quarreling parties with the applicant (usually the employee) trying to get as much monetary compensation and the respondent (usually the employer)  claiming that the relationship is irretrievably broken down.  This may not apply as much in a collective dispute, but the fact remains that hardly any CCMA cases are remedied by issuing an order of, or conciliating, a reinstatement or re-employment, but by negotiating compensation in order to settle the dispute. Alone their goal to achieve a total of 16% reinstatement and re-employment outcomes in settlements emanating from all processes in the CCMA 2015/16 financial year report attests to this statement.

But things are changing. The emergence of new human capital trends, open source exchange and a more internationally mobile workforce – including the rise of telecommuting – effect  global workplace change. A slight increase in women in leadership positions worldwide may also contribute to this change; however, it is not significant enough yet to be anything else than anecdotal. Forward thinking Human Resource practitioners and companies are starting to place emphasis on culture creation, learning and development, a transparent salary system and a flat hierarchy, just to name a few.

These areas are key to conflict prevention at the workplace, similar to a need for business and work processes which give a workplace and its people structural stability. Yet, there are still many who only do lip service to these new changes by solely focusing on legal compliance reporting (in South  Africa, for instance, the focus would be on making sure a Skills Development Plan has been submitted and BBB-EE points have been earned) rather than on true transformation beyond a political or financial agenda.

Conflict prevention: light or deep?

In the theory of conflict prevention, there is both light and deep prevention. Applied to the workplace, light prevention equals the drafting of policies and company handbook or a culture code that everybody needs to adhere to, for instance. These documents are aimed at preventing situations that may result in conflict. There may also be “diplomatic interventions” between a disputing manager and team-member through a CEO stepping in to resolve their issues; or between a company and an employee in a disciplinary hearing chaired by a third party; a few workplaces may even commission mediators to resolve a dispute and keep the peace at work. Light prevention is also referred to as operational prevention; or the tactical capacity to intervene before things get really bad.

But now what does it help to have policies, disciplinary procedures and compliance reports in place when the structure is rotten or wobbly? What if cultural workplace values are just a giant poster plastered onto the wall next to the coffee machine, but they are not lived, monitored and constantly improved on? What if goal-posts are constantly shifted, and there is no real accountability?

Deep prevention aims to address root causes of potential conflict including insights into personality clashes at work, relationships, missing or weak leadership, and unclear expectations, for instance.

Risk factors and warning signs

I have seen countless times how removed C-level executives and owners are from reality, or the pulse on the floor. There is a strong disparity between how happy they think their workforce is, and how satisfied they really are. I have met many employees who avoid conflict and start looking for a new opportunity when things go sour or they feel like there is no room for growth, rather than taking the bull by its horns, and trying to affect change. Nobody wants to burn bridges and as long as they do find a new opportunity, no harm is done. Exit interviews may reveal the real reason for their resignation, but even if they do, these are usually downplayed by management as to be expected to be negative since the person was leaving – and not taken as a warning sign to start looking more deeply into the company’s structures, culture and communication.

Early warning signs are indicators that re-thinking and re-structuring is needed, but not everyone recognises them, and often to their own detriment. They wonder why their sales figures are low or their staff turnover high. And the result? Employers implement tougher sales targets and less commission; or they throw in free beer on a Friday or a Foosball table to try and retain their staff.

In international conflict prevention, Ted Gurr identifies three risk factors that may lead to ethno-political rebellion. Translated to the workplace, these factors will lead to less output, lower productivity, more disciplinary hearings, low attrition rate and a high Bradford factor.

The three Ted Gurr risk factors:

  1. History of lost political autonomy (translated to the workplace: employees are just numbers; they have no input, no say, and they are not given the opportunity to develop their leadership skills);
  2. Active economic and political discrimination against the group (translated to the workplace: no salary increases, salary ratio between higher management and ordinary employee extremely high; shifting of goal posts; re-structuring plans without transparency; no participatory work governance);
  3. History of state repression (translated to the workplace: focus on rules, clogging of every minute spent at work, bums at desk policy, minimal working conditions without room for negotiation)

If your workplace ticks one or more of the above, then maybe it’s time to take a really hard and long look at it. Maybe it’s time to rebuild your structure in order to prevent unnecessary conflict.

After all, it’s the smart thing to do.


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