Conflict is less likely to arise in a workplace when people are feeling safe, satisfied and connected. When one, or a combination of these, is threatened we can feel stressed and our best selves don’t show up.
If you’re experiencing conflict in your workplace, can you identify which of these three basic human needs isn’t being met?
In our workplaces our feeling of safety could be threatened because our job is stretching our capacity in terms of difficulty and complexity. Or it could be a fear that we won’t have the available energy to meet our home/family/community commitments.
The money we earn through our jobs is one of the significant and tangible ways we meet our need for protection and security. It’s how many of our physical needs are met and how we provide for our families. So when we experience stress or a threat to performing in our job, we can feel fearful and vulnerable.
Here’s how Ellen expressed it:
‘I’m feeling really stressed at work and I don’t know if I can sustain it. How am I going to keep doing this for the next 15, 20 or 25years? But everything I read says we need to have over $700k in superannuation. I have to keep working…’
The stress could be a mismatch between Ellen’s skills and the job role, an imbalance between her need to be at work and her need to be at home or in her community, or working in an environment that doesn’t feel like a good fit for her. And working in an environment that doesn’t feel like a good fit includes the people that she works with.
If you get a situation where the three of these stressors come together, i.e. skills mismatch, work/life balance and less than compatible team members; conflict can arise as individuals grapple with a situation in which they feel threatened or unsafe and where they have very little choice or control.
When you experience satisfaction at work you have feelings of accomplishment, gratitude and having enough. Your hard work and striving results in successfully achieving your aims and objectives. It’s likely that your work is stimulating and you’re motivated to do well, complete tasks and take initiative.
But what happens when things don’t go your way and you can’t get any traction? Conflict can arise when you feel someone else might be thwarting your efforts and standing in your way of progressing. Or maybe you’re not being stretched and feeling bored and disengaged. Alan shared the following:
‘I really wanted this job and worked hard to get here. But I always end up being the lackey. I do all the work behind the scenes but on the day my supervisor takes the limelight and credit. What do I have to do to get noticed around here?’
As human beings our sense of belonging is so important because throughout evolution our survival relied on being part of a group. Given the number of hours many people spend at work, it’s no surprise that being appreciated and recognized in a supportive environment is something we long for.
If we feel excluded or not part of the ‘in crowd’ it’s easy to feel resentment and jealousy. This is fertile ground for conflict as our connections with others are threatened. Jane said:
‘It really hurts when my manager asks the supervisors to planning days and never asks for my input. I’m the one who works directly with the clients and understands our products and services best from an operational level. I know I’d have a lot to offer and I’d appreciate the opportunity to talk and share about what I do. I guess you have to be more senior to have any voice or input here.’
What’s the conflict telling you?
Try to listen to what the conflict is telling you and your workplace. Of the basic emotions, i.e. love, joy, anger, fear and sadness; conflict is in the realm of the so-called negative emotions – anger, fear and sadness. (I say so-called because all of our emotions are useful and serve us in important ways. The trick is to respond rather than react.)
For example, anger tells us that our needs aren’t being met and/or that someone is messing with our boundaries. Try to identify if this is the situation for you. Following are a couple of typical examples from the workplace.
- Are you being recognized for your contributions? (Worse than that, is someone else being recognized for your contributions?)
- Do you have some control and autonomy over how you do your job? Or is someone else always encroaching and directing. (An example of this might be the manager who always feels compelled to edit your written work even in very minor ways.)
- Sometimes feeling powerless, or less powerful, can raise anger as we are thwarted from expressing our abilities and skills by a lack of opportunity.
Fear tells us that something needs our attention because our well-being is threatened.
As humans we are hard-wired for social interaction. Our ancestors didn’t survive long outside of the tribe on their own. So our need to belong continues to be important to our well-being. If we’re feeling on the outer at work, that can feel pretty stressful.
Sometimes engaging with others through gossiping and forming alliances feels like we’re connecting with others and feeds this need. But as most of us know, these behaviours make a day in the office emotionally charged and sometimes awkward. It sucks so much of the energy that we could be applying to expressing our skills and talents and making a difference in our organisation and community. Is that really how we would choose to spend our precious lives?
Fear can also be caused by changes at the top. For example a new manager or CEO will disrupt the equilibrium and we’ll have a heightened sense of potential change which can feel like danger e.g. fear of the unknown.
When you feel sad, ask yourself ‘What have I lost?’ Is there some loss in the workplace that could be stressing you and/or your team?
Maybe a restructure has changed valued relationships and activities. Or a colleague has been promoted and you’ve lost that peer whom you relied upon. Maybe everyone’s workload has increased, or the work has become more complex, and you’re longing for the good old days when you used to have longer lunches and Friday night drinks.
Chances are that all of these emotions and their causes are at play in a workplace. What can we do?
Building inner strengths and resources
It’s been said that happiness is an inside job. While it’s important to talk to your managers and co-workers about what is happening around any conflict in your workplace, the place where you can have the greatest impact is often within yourself. A powerful antidote to addressing the stress that can lead to conflict is identifying and cultivating your inner strengths.
Rick Hanson Ph.D is a clinical psychologist and author who teaches Positive Neuroplasticity Training. He provides the following chart to suggest the strengths that can be developed to deal with common negative issues or material.
These inner strengths are organised and aligned here to address the three basic needs mentioned earlier: Safety (avoiding harms), Satisfaction (approaching rewards) and Connection (attaching to others).
|Safety (avoiding harms)
||Feeling alright now, making a plan
||Big picture, peace
|Satisfaction (approaching rewards)
|What I don’t have
||What I do have
||Loved and loving
||Feeling already satisfied
|Connection (attaching to others)
|Left out, excluded
||Friendship, caring to others, and oneself
||Recognise it hurts you
||Self-compassion, take action, good will
Once the antidote is identified, you can cultivate that inner resource in your mind which overtime will strengthen that neural pathway in your brain. To put it simply, cultivating a ‘state’ helps you to turn it into a ‘trait’. The science is very clear on this: ‘you can change your mind, to change your brain, to change your mind…for the better’.
There is a lot of useful information on the internet about the efficacy of mindfulness practices on our well-being including Rick Hanson’s website https://www.rickhanson.net/. I’d certainly encourage you to seek out and use this information.
In the meantime there are simple (but profound) things you can begin to do today.
Practice gratitude – take a few minutes each day, or throughout the day, to think about what you are grateful for in life including at your workplace. It’s well proven that what we focus on shapes our brains and lays down new or strengthened neural pathways.
By focusing on and taking in the good, we are re-wiring our brains for a more positive experience of the world. As someone put it, ‘if you tune into a country music radio station, you’ll hear country music.’ Direct your mind to ‘tune in’ to the positive. Overtime you’ll know all the words to your favourite songs. There are many resources readily available on Mindfulness including Rick Hanson’s website.
Or jump in and have a go with these simple guidelines:
- Notice…something you are thankful for.
- Stop…what you’re doing and focus on the object of that gratitude.
- Acknowledge…why you feel thankful for it and that it is in your life.
- Breathe…it in and let it expand and flow around in your mind and body.
- Repeat as often as you’d like!
TAKE IN THE GOOD
Cultivate inner strengths – using the tables listed earlier in this article, consider what inner resources might be useful in giving you more peace, love and contentment in any of those challenges listed.
For example, if you identify that the challenge for you is Worry/Fear, an inner resource that would be useful to cultivate would be Focusing on the Big Picture or Being at Peace.
Use Rick Hanson’s table as a guide, but also consider identifying for yourself the inner strength that would be most useful for you in a given situation. Maybe it is one that has worked for you in the past. Once you’ve identified the relevant inner strength, Sit with it. That means create some space and time to contemplate this inner strength as a ‘felt experience’.
Rick Hanson provides an easy guide to taking in the good — H+E+A+L:
H — Have the experience – rest your mind on that quality or strength you wish to grow/cultivate.
E — Enrich it – stay with it for at least half a minute and as long as what feels right for you. Use the following prompts to support having a fuller and felt experience of it, e.g.:
Thoughts: What are your thoughts, beliefs, perspectives, expectations, images, memories or ideas about this strength?
Perception: What sensations, sights, sounds, tastes or smells resonate while your mind is resting on this strength?
Emotion: What feeling or mood is invoked? Feel it fully.
Desire: What wants, wishes, hopes, values, drives, motivation, purposes, dreams, passions or determinations are activated?
Action: What behaviour, postures, knowledge (knowing how to) would be useful or demonstrated here?
A — Absorb the experience.
Absorbing makes memory systems more receptive by priming and sensitizing them. Create the sense of the experience sinking into you by using imagery, e.g. water into a sponge; or a sensation, a warm soothing balm. By ‘giving over’ to the experience, you allow it to change you.
L — Link positive and negative material (optional).
When we activate (have the experience) and install (enrich and absorb) positive material, there’s an opportunity to soothe, ease, put in perspective and even replace negative material. Negative material includes painful or harmful
- desires and
To do this we have to hold two things at once in our minds and not be hijacked by the negative material. We can do this by holding the positive experience more prominently in our awareness. If the negative starts to take over, drop it or recalibrate it, i.e. make it smaller.
The idea is that the positive material goes into the negative material like a ‘soothing balm’ filling up the hollow places. You will have a sense of the receiving the positive into the negative and end with just the positive.
It’s understandable that conflict is going to be part of our lives, especially our working lives, as we all negotiate to get our needs met — feeling safe, satisfied and connected.
Our best chance at managing the conflict in a healthy and productive way is by working on our response. With greater self-awareness we can recognise when one of our basic needs is threatened and call on the inner strengths and resources to deal with those threats.
Every time you ‘take in the good’ you build the resources to match external challenges and internal issues. While conflict may not ever completely disappear, you’ll cease to engage with it and enjoy greater well-being.
So while it can be tempting to place the problems of the workplace or the world outside of us, that is not where our power lies. Sure, work where you can on the organisational and systemic issues that contribute to conflict in your workplace, but start where you can and that is with yourself.
Suzanne works as a Coach, Mediator, Facilitator and Trainer in her freelance business Open Window — www.openwindow.com.au. She’s recently completed a six-day Positive Neuroplasticity Training course with Rick Hanson PhD (https://www.rickhanson.net/) and acknowledges his work in the writing of this piece.
 Buddha’s Brain and Hardwiring Happiness
 Rick Hanson