Bullying, incivility, and conflict resolution at work

This topic deserves more in-depth consideration than what I can offer here, but it’s been pinging away at me: The intersection of workplace bullying, workplace incivility, and conflict resolution.

At times bullying and incivility are conflated, and I plead guilty to that.  To illustrate, I’ve cited leading studies on workplace incivility in making a case for taking bullying seriously on a legal and organizational level.  Because terms and definitions in this realm are not uniformly adopted, there will be some inevitable sloshing around.

But there are distinctions worth drawing a line in the sand.  For example, in an earlier post, I agreed with those who believe that genuine workplace bullying — targeted, hurtful behavior — cannot, or at least should not, be subject to traditional mediation approaches.  One does not attempt to mediate abuse.

However, I believe that lesser forms of workplace discord definitely may benefit from mediation and other dispute resolution techniques.  The difference lies in the distinction between abusive behavior vs. conflicts between parties with relatively equal institutional and personal power.

Is some incivility necessary, even, umm…useful?

In addition, some forms of incivility may be necessary toward building a psychologically healthy workplace.  After all, honest expressions of emotion, including anger, can be a first step in resolving differences.

Workplaces that expect their employees to neuter their emotions are sorry environments indeed, yet too many of them exist.  (I should know: I’m both a lawyer and an academician, two of the most emotionally repressed vocations imaginable!)  Some of these bottled up places host a lot of bad behaviors, especially of the passive-aggressive variety.  At the same time, their socially dysfunctional cultures frown upon outward expressions of emotion to exhibit concern or exasperation.  It makes for a lot of quietly angry and resentful employees.

Pseudo-relational workplace cultures

Psychologists Linda Hartling and Elizabeth Sparks, whose important analysis of organizational cultures I described in an earlier post, have identified these types of workplaces as hosting “pseudo-relational” cultures that value superficial “niceness” over constructive change.  By keeping everything at this level, the hard stuff of addressing conflicts and difference is ignored.  In fact, those who try to press these issues are labeled as troublemakers and malcontents.

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