Avoiding conflict is a regular feature of work. But over time, avoidance has negative effects.
The fight or flight response is what happens when people find themselves under attack. In workplaces, although it isn’t (usually) physical survival that is at stake, how to survive the day-to-day stress of working for a toxic manager can offer the same stark choices – confrontation or getting the hell out.
There’s also the option of telling senior management. However, a very common reaction is avoidance – keeping your head down and remaining shtum.
But the instinct to put up and shut up can be bad all round. Avoidance doesn’t make the problem go away, and often it can make it considerably worse.
Associate professor Vesa Matti Peltokorpi has been studying interaction avoidance and its repercussions for employees. His paper ‘Abusive supervision and emotional exhaustion’ was published in AHRI’s Asia Pacific Journal of HR.
He says people can adopt active or passive coping strategies. The former category can involve simply talking to the perpetrator about their behaviour and asking them to stop, or they may approach HR. The risk in both cases is that the problem isn’t dealt with or taken seriously, and that by complaining, the employee is seen as a troublemaker, which may negatively impact their career.
For these reasons, subordinates are more likely to adopt passive coping strategies, says Peltokorpi. In his research, he conducted a survey of 600 employees in Japan over a 12-month period and found something interesting about the people who avoid retaliating and instead try to distance themselves from the source of abuse and stress. While it may appear to work in the short term, Peltokorpi’s research shows that long-term avoidance makes the situation even worse for an employee.
“It leads to emotional exhaustion which can trigger a host of stress-related illnesses as well as absenteeism and high staff turnover.”
This remains a huge problem for businesses. In November last year, Safe Work Australia released data showing that the number of serious workplace injuries related to harassment and bullying has almost doubled over the past ten years.
So how can HR become more attuned to avoidance strategies among staff? And more fundamentally, how can HR create a culture where people feel confident that they can voice concerns without fear of retribution?
Maree Slater, global head of people at Infomedia and a senior HR professional who has driven positive cultural change in a diverse range of industry sectors, believes there are different reasons why people don’t react to abusive managers.
“They may simply lack knowledge. They don’t know who to go to for support, or where to find information. Or they may lack courage. They fear repercussions and career-limiting,” says Slater.
It’s HR’s job to ensure it is clear to employees where the lines of communication are, where to go and what they can do – and this shouldn’t just be in a written policy, she says.
“There should be education sessions around challenging conversations and broaching difficult subjects, with HR taking a lead by identifying line manager champions who can be consulted in private if there are concerns.”
When an organisation is open and transparent about policy and procedures around reporting abusive behaviour, it helps employees feel empowered to report it when they see it, whether they are directly affected or not, says Slater.
Peltokorpi suggests an anonymous reporting scheme is helpful, but when an employee complains directly to HR, they must feel total confidence that the matter will be dealt with promptly, professionally and confidentially.
“HR’s role as an employee advocate is so important here, to be trusted and to reassure people that there won’t be repercussions or victimisation,” says Slater. “The problem is that HR doesn’t always do that clearly enough.
“In the 60s and 70s there was clarity around the role of personnel [as HR was called then]. They were the hirer and firer and often the employee advocate. They were both feared and respected. While we don’t want to return to that, since the profession became HR in the 80s the role has become very lacking in clarity. HR is too often associated as a tool of management. So the idea that you should be able to go to HR… well, often it’s not happening.”
An interesting finding of Peltokorpi’s research concerned people who adopted a very pragmatic or transactional approach to their job. They acknowledged an unequal distribution of power and just accepted the consequences. “They take abusive supervision for granted, care little about how they are treated by their supervisors, and consequently view these stresses as less damaging to their psychological well-being.”
While this water-off-a-duck’s-back attitude might protect them more from emotional harm, it’s not good for business – or, one could argue, for wider society.
Slater says there are always people for whom work is just a means to make money and who have little concern for the ethics of their workplace.
“What can you do about that? I believe it goes back to recruitment. Are we hiring the right people for their moral fibre and their attitude? Are we hiring people who care about their fellow workers? Or are we just hiring a bunch of sociopaths and psychopaths.”
Peltokorpi’s research offers proposals such as senior management modelling respectful and appropriate behaviour, and poor behaviour being dealt with swiftly. Leadership development programs are key to changing the ingrained attitude that to be effective you also have to be tough.
Finally, organisations have to take their own pulse and be sensitive to the cultural values that are held by their employee body and how those values manifest themselves in supervisor and subordinate interactions, says Peltokorpi.
“Without an open environment where people at all levels feel able to express, voice and report abusive behaviours of their managers, all you’re left with is the sound of silence.”
Tips for spotting conflict avoiders
HRM spoke to HR expert Peter Bowen of deliberatepractice about how to identify the telltale signs of conflict avoidance on the job. Here is what he says you should look out for and what standard HR tools can be helpful.
Behaviour changes – Sudden changes in employee behaviour, including being late for work, altered leaving times, reduced discretionary effort, and personality changes (becoming withdrawn, being tired or visibly looking stressed or anxious), could indicate an issue.
Absenteeism – If this increases or suddenly changes, this could signal a problem.
Internalrecruitment – An increase in internal applications for other positions may suggest issues within a team or with a supervisor.
Exit interviews – Use these as an opportunity for people to air problems either directly with individuals, or via a neutral third party; they can create a forum for people to feel safe to speak up.
This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in the March 2020 edition of HRM magazine.
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