Power dynamics lay at the heart of workplace crises involving conflict between people. Here, we explain how organisations that prioritise high quality human interaction and relationships at work are best placed to prevent conflict in the first place.

It’s an unfortunate truth at the moment, that we don’t have to look very far to find examples of serious workplace crises involving high-profile conflict between organisations and their people. Take English Cricket, whose Independent Commission for Equity found that complaints systems are “confusing”, “overly defensive” and “not fit for purpose” for victims or those accused of wrongdoing. Or ITV, whose organisational and leadership culture (and its impact on their overall duty of care) was scrutinised in Parliament as a potential contributing factor during the Philip Schofield affair. Even the UK’s leading business lobbying organisation, the CBI, stands accused of a toxic culture that has led to a raft of serious allegations against senior management.

Power dynamics lay at the heart of such cases. More specifically, a dysfunctional culture of power dynamics can lead to negative ‘shadow’ behaviours in managers and leaders (coercion, excessive and/ or inappropriate forms of control, bullying and abuse or simply ‘absentee leadership’). These are behaviours that undermine the systems and processes that ought to be in place to protect people from the abuses of power that impact negatively on their job satisfaction and experience of work. If those who are in charge believe their power is unfettered to challenge and resistant to scrutiny, then complex issues of equality and diversity, equity and fairness and organisational duty of care can quickly escalate, resulting in a crisis that demands a response many of us may feel ill-equipped to address.

Organisations that anticipate sources of potential conflict, by prioritising the development of a culture that can prevent conflict from arising in the first place, are best placed to respond to a crisis between an organisation and its people.

The quality of human interaction and relationships in the workplace can have a powerful effect on job satisfaction, performance and business success. Business problems, no matter how complex, can be overcome and even avoided in the first place, where a workplace culture has been established that lets people feel trusted, respected and confident enough to speak freely. This is a psychologically safe workplace, where decades of research show us that innovation and performance can flourish, in an environment where people are motivated to tackle a problem or situation together through a greater sense of connection, belonging and individual and collective purpose.

For leaders needing to respond to a crisis now, or just wanting to start changing the way you do things, to reduce the chances of conflict in the future, it is important to emphasise that behaviour change does not happen straightaway, or by diktat – especially if the working environment currently lacks the necessary foundations for building psychologically safe and resilient relationships.

Owning the problem should be a key launch point for your response as a leader. Ownership can be clearly expressed by demonstrating that you have understood the root cause and dynamics of the crisis; have reflected on the behaviours that contributed to it and finally that you then implement the right systems to begin resolving it.

For those who need it, consider the following practical, systematic actions you can take to help examine and reconfigure your workplace’s culture and behaviours and respond to an organisational crisis:

Context – identify and understand your specific operating context and how it might uniquely impact on this crisis. Map out the factors that constitute the crisis and the consequences, both intended and unintended. For example, if an organisation loses its CEO abruptly following an issue of reputation damage, breakdown the factors that led to the resignation; identify those in the organisation with and without control; consider the consequences of this resignation, including the intentional (to recruit to the vacancy of the new leader and whether their characteristics will need to be the same or substantially different) and the unintentional (the immediate loss of internal guidance and decision making at internal meetings and organisational representation).

Curious Inquiry – try to examine and assimilate your technical (share price, customer and competitor response) and relational (stakeholder feedback, staff surveys) data and assets through a positive, strength-based lens, to develop a learning mindset about the resignation of your CEO.

Self – identify and reinforce what allows people to be their ‘best self’ in the workplace. This could be through formal supervision and feedback mechanisms or through more informal workplace social connections. The key is people feel they have had the opportunity for their honest reflections about the resignation and how its impacted them to be heard and feel listened to.

Human – recognise and highlight the best in people through connection, commonality, humility and humour. In the uncertainty and vacuum that follows the sudden and high-profile loss of a leader, try to nurture networks that can act as a shared space for dialogue that acknowledges a possible and natural sense of shock. Providing people time be human and to talk openly about what has happened can create supportive bonds between people that builds the resilience needed to see them through an uncertain period.

Create Safe Spaces – operationally, allowing people to be more themselves, more human when they and the whole organisation are vulnerable requires new ground rules for safer spaces, where the implications of change can be processed and collective solutions imagined. These are spaces where challenging but authentic dialogue can be nurtured, taking people from ‘low level’ listening (dictated by our habit for reconfirming old opinions and judgements and disconfirming new information) to a more empathic and generative level of listening, where we are able to connect better with other perspectives and, psychologically, be more receptive to a wider world of options and possibilities for ourselves and for those we work alongside. Collaboration, after all, requires the contributions of all, and we tend to be more likely to contribute when we feel truly listened to.

Action-Orientated – especially in your willingness to try new things. Real world experiments might mean you fail fast. And that’s okay as long as you respond well and ‘course-correct’ as necessary.

Welcoming greater Accountability for owning and changing outcomes for the better. For the most senior leaders, this may mean stepping into their vulnerability, humility, curiosity and empathy in a way that empowers their people to follow suit and step up into shared accountability for the improvement measures demanded as a response to the CEO departure.

Sustainability – combining what works and reinforcing it with new practices that will prevent the same or a similar crisis happening again. Then embedding these as new habits that lead to lasting, positive culture and behaviour changes.

Responding to a crisis that has involved shadow behaviours consistent with power imbalances between leaders and their people requires reflection, humility, empathy and understanding on the part of those responsible for taking the organisation forward. It also requires a recovery process that is robust, methodical yet safe enough to create the conditions where people are motivated by a greater sense of connection, belonging and individual and collective purpose – a safe workplace where decades of research show us that innovation and performance can flourish.

Contact us to learn how The Fearless Facilitator Method® helps businesses and leaders improve team performance, solve an operational challenge, clarify a policy position or respond to a crisis.