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Written By: Blaine Donais, President and Founder, Workplace Fairness Institute
THE SIX LEVELS OF WORKPLACE HEALTH: A diagnostic tool for determining the conflict resolution methods within an organization
The theory of “workplace health” can be best described by comparing a workplace to a human being. As humans, our health is often affected by the choices we make regarding diet, exercise, stress and generally the way we choose to live our lives. Poor diet, excessive stress, lack of sleep, lack of exercise and destructive behaviours such as alcohol and drug abuse can often lead to poor health.
The same can be said of a workplace’s health. Often workplaces exhibit behaviours which are indicative of poor conflict management, leading to unfair decisions, a high turnover rate, and unproductive workplaces.
In this article, we consider the concept of “workplace health” and the consequences of poor workplace health upon the success of the organization. We also explore proactive solutions for strong workplace health.
Figure 1 is a model called the “WFI Workplace Health Theory: Six Levels of Workplace Health”. It describes both constructive and destructive workplace behaviours as well as reactive and proactive responses to conflict. By comparing these two elements we have identified six levels of workplace conflict health.
Figure 1 - WFI Workplace Health Theory: Six Levels of Workplace Health
While most workplaces may show signs of each of these workplace health levels, more productive, engaging and positive workplace environments focus upon the top three levels of workplace health. These levels are purposefully prioritized to symbolize their desirability. In other words, the most healthy workplaces are those that concentrate on “holistic constructive” approaches while the least healthy workplaces exhibit “active destructive” behaviours. The goal of any workplace should be to move toward holistic, constructive approaches and away from active destructive behaviours.
Active, Passive and Reactive Destructive Behaviours
Organizations, like human beings, are complex organisms. Humans may get up in the morning, have a balanced nutritious breakfast, go for a jog, then smoke cigarettes and drink coffee all day, and consume alcohol much of the evening. In other words, humans have destructive and constructive behaviours. Some humans have more or less of each, but it is fair to say that most humans practice both types of behaviours.
The same can be said about organizations and “conflict behaviours”. An organization may invest considerable resources and effort into a peer mediation program, and then allow abusive behaviours from their management team because it produces short term results.
Typical Destructive Behaviours
Many workplaces engage in some types of destructive behaviours. Some of the most observable destructive behaviours are:
- Unfair decisions
- Excessive bottom line focus
- Excessive “victory” focus
- Lack of concern for individuals
- Harsh and unfair punishments
While there are some workplaces that exhibit these behaviours directly and in abundance, many other workplaces have more subtle and nuanced versions of these destructive behaviours. For example, the employee who might be a little different or is not someone’s best friend is not selected for the promotion. The employee is not considered a “team player”.
According to a PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) survey of 19,000+ people in exit interviews, among the top ten reasons people leave an organization is Supervisor lacked respect/support ( #2 at 13%), Supervisor poor employee relations (4%) and Supervisor displayed favoritism (4%).1 Workplace behaviours have a significant impact on employee retention and engagement.
A good example of institutionalized destructive behaviour was Enron’s performance management policy. They had what is commonly referred to as the “rank and yank” method of succession planning. They would annually rank their employees from 1 to 100. Then they would draw a line at a certain percentile and fire employees who did not meet reach that percentile2.
This encouraged all the destructive behaviours mentioned above. In a rush to the top, workplace participants would do anything necessary to make themselves look good and make others look bad. The excessive bottom line focus drove employees to lie to survive and this created a culture of extreme unfairness. Needless to say, this was one of the reasons for the massive implosion of the company. It is a good example of Level 1 behaviour: Active Destructive corporate health culture.
There are also Passive Destructive behaviours, like lawlessness, and what we call the “bottom-line fetish” (i.e. sacrificing the conflict health of the organization in the interests of immediate economic performance), and generally a lack of concern for individuals in the workplace. These passive behaviours promote active destructive behaviours. In a lawless organization, for example, active destructive behaviours tend to take hold as people fight for their own survival and advancement without regard to fair rules and fair decision-making. We call this “Level Two Behaviour” because it indirectly promotes Level One behaviours.
A good example of passive destructive behaviour was the CBC’s failure to provide its staff a workplace "free from disrespectful and abusive behaviour"3 from former radio and television host Jian Ghomeshi. In October 2014 Jian Ghomeshi was fired after the CBC received information that “precluded it” from continuing to employ the host of the radio show Q4.
Janice Rubin, an employment lawyer of Rubin Thomlinson LLP, was hired to independently investigate the CBC’s handling of former host Jian Ghomeshi. After interviewing 99 people in her April 2015 report she concludes
…that CBC failed to live up to its obligations to provide its employees a workplace that is free from disrespectful and abusive behaviour. It failed to take decisive steps to deal with Mr. Ghomeshi in the workplace. The actions taken by managers were ineffective, infrequent, and inconsistent. Indeed, this tacit acceptance of disrespectful and abusive behaviour that was contrary to the Behavioural Standard had the effect of condoning the behaviour.5
What is it about a workplace culture which creates an environment of tacit acceptance and passive destructive behaviour? In the Ghomeshi case the report acknowledges the role of “Host Culture”. Host Culture seems to emerge because hosts inevitably have big personalities, exceptional behaviour is tolerated (and perhaps excused by results), and there is the over-riding desire to keep hosts happy6. Ultimately, this is a story of power. No organization is sheltered from the impact of the pursuit for power and success.
The third level of workplace health is called Reactive Destructive. These behaviours are more commonly associated with excessive command and control, or top-down cultures. They are typified by harsh and unfair punishments, excessive concern for legal liability and an undue focus on employee obedience rather than employee contribution. While organizations that are typified by such behaviour may discourage bullying and discrimination, and they certainly will have rules, they tend to be too heavy-handed and patriarchal – thus leaving employees with a sense of fear throughout their working lives. We refer to these as “Level Three Behaviours”.
Constructive Behaviours and Responses
The top three levels of Workplace Health consider constructive behaviours and constructive responses to conflict. In ascending order we call these three levels “Reactive Constructive‟, “Preventative Constructive” and “Holistic Constructive”, the highest level.
The Fourth Level of Workplace Health is dominated by Reactive Constructive behaviours and responses to conflict. Examples of Reactive Constructive approaches might be: fair and balanced dispute resolution decision-making, mediation, fair investigation processes. These approaches focus upon dealing with conflict as it arises. While we consider these approaches constructive, they are also mostly reactive in nature. They do not arise until the conflict has already happened. Additionally, they are mostly focused on dealing with the conflict at hand. These approaches can be helpful in dealing with the symptoms of an unhealthy organization – but they are not always useful at addressing the underlying causes.
As conflict remains unaddressed, bystanders are drawn in, and the focus shifts from tangible concrete problem-solving to finger-pointing. Rather than seeking understanding, participants seek to win. Rubin, Pruitt and Kim’s book Social Conflict offers further reading on conflict transformations7. Eventually, what seems an insignificant matter between two parties is morphed into an uncontrollable conflict that affects many people and can have dire consequences for all involved. It is for this reason that Reactive Constructive measures are considered to result in a lower level of workplace health than more proactive measures. By the time the reactive measure is invoked, there has already been considerable conflict transformation and the health of the workplace has already suffered – sometimes irreparably. This is why progressive workplaces are considering more proactive measures.
In our experience, many organizations fall into this category. The shift to a higher level of workplace health is hampered by budgets and a drive for efficiency which impacts staffing resources.
The Fifth Level of Workplace Health – Preventative Constructive – is indicative of generally proactive measures for dealing with workplace conflict. Workplaces which are predominately at this level of workplace health tend to concern themselves with forward thinking as it relates to conflict and unfairness. In such workplaces, strategies will be developed to forecast and account for potential sources, and they will devise strategies to minimize the likelihood of conflict taking place.
Preventative Constructive measures can include training and development of staff, managers, and human resources professionals, on how best to deal with conflict and make fair and consistent decisions. There will also be thoughtful, balanced and well researched policies in place that guide workplace participants through conflict situations, and policies that inform workplace participants how to avoid unnecessary conflict. Conflict coaching, when used thoughtfully, can be a Preventative Constructive measure. Where workplace individuals are identified as “could benefit from coaching”, and where the conflict coach is called well in advance of major conflict to help those in need, this has a preventative quality for future conflict.
The advantage of a Preventative Constructive approach is that much conflict and unfairness is forecasted and managed up front before it occurs. Workplaces that devote resources to training, good policy making, and thoughtful processes tend to moderate the transformations of conflict we discussed earlier. These workplaces are more fair, healthy and conflict-free than those that rely upon reactive approaches.
Referring back to Rubin’s CBC report, the recommendations include to “Establish a Respect at Work and Human Rights Ombudsperson” and to “Establish a Confidential Workplace Hotline”8. These recommendations establish much-needed processes for informal conflict resolution which provides a safe way for employees to bring forward concerns. Often, formal complaints are not brought forward when employees are fearful of retribution, or concerned that they may appear weak in a culture which expects employees to bring forward solutions to problems they raise, or to resolve it themselves. Both options mentioned above are within reach of organizations of all sizes, particularly when an organization is willing to reach for creative alternatives and to invest to mitigate the high cost of conflict.
The sixth and highest level of workplace health is called Holistic Constructive. Like the previous level, the Holistic Constructive level focuses on proactive approaches for managing workplace health. What distinguishes the Holistic Constructive level from the Preventative Constructive level, is that Holistic Constructive workplaces seek to integrate conflict management and fairness into the very business of the workplace. Such workplaces are keen on organizational analysis, considering the impact of all processes, policies, procedures and decisions upon the health of the workplace.
The consistent view of Holistic Constructive workplaces is that healthy workplaces are wealthy workplaces. A clear line is drawn between health and success for such organizations. Typically, such organizations rely upon constant feedback from participants and are committed to continuous improvement in the way they deal with human issues. The goal is to engage workplace participants to play a positive role in engendering workplace health as well as wealth. Thus, while generally the responsibility falls upon “management” to ensure workplace health at the lower levels, at the Holistic Constructive Level this responsibility is openly and eagerly shared with each workplace participant through feedback forums, training and development, appreciative enquiry and thoughtful planning.
The model of 6 Levels of Workplace Health can be used as a diagnostic tool to help assess the overall level of workplace conflict health. Organizations that encourage constructive behaviours and discourage destructive behaviours are generally more productive an innovative. Employees are generally more engaged in their work and tend to be more interested in the success of the organization. This tool can be used to help identify negative and positive behaviours and to encourage proactive approaches to managing the workplace.
Organizations which wish to invest in a more Preventative Constructive or Holistic Constructive culture must invest in creative alternatives for employees to seek informal conflict resolution.
Blaine Donais, president and founder of The Workplace Fairness Institute (www.workplacefairness.ca) and Michelle Phaneuf & Marjorie Munroe (www.workplacefairnesswest.ca) work with organizations to provide and consult on measures for improving workplace health. Alberta contact: 403 542 6998. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Blaine Donais (B.A., LL.B., LL.M., RPDR, C. MED.) is President and Founder of the Workplace Fairness Institute. Blaine is a labour lawyer and an expert in labour/management facilitations, mediation, and investigation. He teaches human resources professionals, labour leaders and others in areas such as Human Rights, Labour and Employment law, Human Resources, Collective Bargaining and Conflict Resolution.
Blaine is author of Workplaces That Work: A Guide to Conflict Management in Union and Non-Union Work Environments (Carswell, 2006), and of Engaging Unionized Employees (Carswell, 2010) and The Art and Science of Workplace Mediation (Carswell, 2014). Blaine is an Adjunct Professor of Workplace Conflict Management and Advanced Mediation Academic Director at York University. He also teaches at the Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources at the University of Toronto.
1 See Blanchard Reader Chat, May 28, 2012, David Whitt http://leaderchat.org/2012/05/28/exit-interviews-show-top-10-reasons-why-employees-quit/
2 See “What Really Went Wrong With Enron? A Culture of Evil?” http://www.scu.edu/ethics/publications/ethicalperspectives/enronpanel.html
3 See “CBC Inquiry Concludes Management Mishandled Jian Ghomeshi” http://www.cbc.ca/news/cbc-inquiry-concludes-management-mishandled-jian-ghomeshi-1.3035574
4 See “CBC Fires Jian Ghomeshi over Sex Allegations” http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2014/10/26/cbc_fires_jian_ghomeshi_over_sex_allegations.html
5 Report: CBC Workplace Investigation Regarding Jian Ghomeshi, April 13, 2015, prepared by Janice Rubin and Parisa Nikfarjam, Rubin Thomlinson LLP, p.26. https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/1894581-report-april-2015-en-1.html (“Rubin Report”)
6 IBID, p. 36.
7 Jeffrey Z. Rubin, Dean G. Pruitt, Sung Hee Kim. Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate, and Settlement, 2nd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, c1994.)
8 Rubin Report, pp.49-50