Stop the silence: turn grievances into conversations

PDA's Sarah Vogel gives her thoughts on how organisations need to aim for a ‘non grievance culture' where people in conflict talk to each other.  

Often in organisations, when problems arise in relationships between individuals and formal grievance procedures kick in, the people with a conflicted relationship are told not to talk to each other.


Line managers’ fear of not adhering to internal procedures also means that any attempt to sit down and talk about the conflict doesn’t happen.


I think that has to change.


Trying to resolve issues, by telling people not to talk to each other, seems to be plain illogical.


And the vast majority of ‘grievance’ cases taken out just do not work in resolving conflicted situations.


Organisations need to make it easier for people to informally resolve things. There needs to be a drive towards a ‘non grievance’ culture where the last thing we ever think of is to throw grievances around like confetti whenever we are upset by something or someone.


Leaders need to be courageous in nipping things in the bud and encourage a culture of transparency and openness in their own teams, with their colleagues and peers and of course up the line to senior execs.


The Harvard Business Review article ‘A culture of candor’ by James O’Toole and the late Warren Bennis is brilliant at naming this issue. We often recommend it to clients. In it, Bennis and O’Toole point out:


"This task begins with creating norms and structures that sanction truth telling. Such organizational practices as open-door policies, ombudsmen, protection for whistle-blowers, and internal blogs that give voice to those at the bottom of the hierarchy can help”


Mediation can be part of this drive away from a grievance culture. It helps to create a safe space to explore the roots of the conflict and also what needs to happen to resolve it. You can learn more here.


Training leaders and managers to have clear, honest and direct conversations can really help build their confidence, which is hugely important in helping them to grasp the nettle and get on with difficult conversations.


I believe if we can help managers and leaders drive this culture change, it can help improve productivity, attendance, engagement and retention, and create a culture where people do not fear feedback, and talk things through, openly and honestly. Before it gets so bad that things crash and burn.


It is heartbreaking when we are called in to help an organisation resolve a conflict and it emerges that the situation has been brewing or festering for years. All that time living with upset, stress, hindered performance and compromised results could have been avoided if things had been tackled sooner and differently.


Part of me understands that sometimes people may feel threatened by each other or afraid of speaking out, but I think organisations could help to facilitate informal resolution conversations rather than just keep people apart.


Keeping people silent won't work.