How to detox a poisonous workplace

Two industry leaders offer their insight into facilitating respectful employee relations and resolving workplace conflict.

A healthy work environment is an environment where people are satisfied with their work and motivated to excel in their respective fields. Such environments are often rare and highly valued in the workplace as they facilitate extensive collaboration and teamwork, and promote employee creativity and productivity. This in turn, translates into high levels of employee investment in the company and workforce at large.

The opposite of a healthy work environment is a toxic environment, one that is full of gossip, rumors, and interpersonal conflict. Toxic work environments needlessly results in unfriendly and uncooperative staff. In short, toxic work environments need to be turned around quickly… but how?

Tamara Reid, human resources coordinator and Charles Qabazard, sales management instructor at Ashton College, outline their expert opinions on supporting a healthy work environment and resolving workplace conflict:
  1. Rapid Response
For Reid, a rapid response from Human Resources to a toxic workplace is crucial: “When conflict occurs in the workplace, it’s important to listen to both sides of the story and to do it quickly. In many cases, a conflict can arise from a simple misunderstanding, but can easily get blown out of proportion if not handled quickly and efficiently.”

From a crisis management perspective, the best course of action for conflict resolution is to get as much information as possible from all parties involved. When this occurs, a Human Resources professional can make an informed, objective decision on what is the best way to handle the situation.
  1. Managing Diversity
Another important aspect of conflict resolution is recognizing that people often have very different understandings of social conventions and cross-cultural communication styles. This is especially true in diversified work environments where day-to-day operations involve a mix of individual cultures, corporate cultures, as well group and even inter-office cultures.

As Qabazard says, “there are so many things mixed together in a work environment, and you need to make sense of them to understand what’s causing the conflict.”

Qabazard shares an example from his own practice to highlight how simple things can create an unfriendly, if not toxic, work environment. “I worked with a company once that had executives from Norway, Germany, Netherlands, UK and Italy. You’d think they are all similar, but they’re not. An English person, for instance, is very diplomatic, and he would be much more delicate when correcting you. Someone from Holland, on the other hand, is incredibly blunt – to them, if they like you and they respect you, they are very straightforward and honest with you. Add to the picture someone from Naples, who is often very emotional and passionate about their work. Try putting them together to work on the same project, and you will most likely see tension, if not an open conflict. This is why you have to look at things in a big picture: if you remember how differently people see the world, you’ll be able to resolve the conflict faster.”
  1. Awareness and Education
Every workplace has procedures in place for dealing with inter-office conflict. These can take the form of grievance policies or specific guidelines and strategies for managing conflict resolution. Similarly, many organizations and companies have policies designed to protect and ensure workplace diversity, equity, and fairness. When a work environment becomes toxic, it’s important to always refer back to those policies as a benchmark for workplace conduct.

As Reid notes, however, simply having a policy or procedure in place often isn’t enough. “A huge aspect of Human Resources is educating employees and helping them understand what the organization stands for in terms of acceptable behaviour. Policies alone are not very efficient. As an HR professional, you need to ensure that people are aware of these policies, and also that they’re aware of what’s behind them.”

Reid also stresses the importance of highlighting the benefits of a cooperative and healthy work environment: “I don’t think there is as much awareness about the long-term ramifications of conflicts and gossip at work. A toxic work environment destroys people’s desire to challenge themselves and aspire to new heights in their careers. This also has the unfortunate effect of making work just much less enjoyable, negatively impacting an organization’s overall productivity.” For Human Resources professionals, it’s crucial to facilitate cooperation between co-workers from day one and to let them know that help is readily available during times of conflict.
  1. Learn to Accept Constructive Criticism
Charles Qabazard shares a few helpful tips that individuals can do to avoid getting themselves into an unnecessary, heated situation. “Quite often when we hear a criticism or negative feedback, we tend to take it personally, get very emotional and jump to conclusions. Instead, I would suggest truly listening and asking yourself what the positive intentions behind that criticism might be.”

Remembering that constructive criticism exists to focus your improvement and growth can prevent many conflicts in the workplace. For Qabazard, the key is to learn to see things from the other person’s point of view, and to ask for clarification if ever unsure of something. Clarity is very important; and Qabazard believes that clarity can be found just by asking a few simple questions, such as “what exactly do you mean by this?” or “in what way can I improve this?”

“This isn’t always easy,” says Qabazard. “It can be difficult to do because as humans, we’re often very emotional. But if we take charge of our emotions, monitor them, and at the same time discipline them, we can be much more productive with our time and can experience less conflict as a result.”

About the author 

Alex Nikotina is a Digital Brand Experience Assistant at Ashton College in Vancouver, an accredited private-post secondary school offering fast and flexible education options to those wanting to upgrade their skills or change careers. 

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