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.
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.
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 for 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”.
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 percentile.
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 a Level 1 — Active Destructive corporate health culture.
Many organizations wallow in the destructive side of workplace health. They always suffer — sometimes in very severe ways. As estimated in the Corporate Leavers Survey conducted for the Level Playing Field Institute in 2007, two million professionals leave their jobs every year in the United States solely because of a perception that the organization will not treat them fairly.
And this just one of five responses to a culture of unfairness in the workplace; most of which are negative and damaging to the workplace culture and those within it. These responses include (see Figure 2 below):
- External Exit (i.e. leave the organization)
- Internal Exit (i.e. absenteeism, presenteeism)
- Assimilate (i.e. become abusive)
- Challenge (i.e. try to combat the unfairness)
- Head Down (i.e. come into work and keep your head down — don’t work any harder than you have to, to keep your job)
There is only one of those responses that can produce positive results for the organization — the “challenge” response. This response is usually made by employees with a high level of loyalty to the organization and a strong self-confidence in their employment options. This employee seeks to move the culture away from destructive behaviours and towards constructive behaviours. Three of the other four responses — “external exit”, “internal exit” and “head down” — allow an organization to entrench its destructive behaviour through lack of direct challenge. The fifth response, “assimilation”, actively supports and encourages destructive behaviours. These people “assimilate” into the culture of unfairness and become active participants, thinking that this is the way to get along and get ahead in this organization.
Figure 2: The Head-Down Theory: Zones of Engagement
Active, Passive and Reactive Destructive Behaviours
As noted in the Six Levels of Workplace Health model (Figure 1), we have identified three types of destructive behaviours. Active Destructive behaviours are the most obvious and damaging to workplace health. These include bullying, discrimination, violence and harassment. They can also include institutionalized unfairness like the “rank and yank” model of performance management and succession planning. We would call this “Level One Behaviour” as it is considered the most damaging to the organization’s health.
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.
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.
To better understand the limitations of Reactive Constructive approaches to dealing with workplace issues, it is helpful to consider the Conflict Transformations theory advanced by Rubin, Pruitt and Kim in their book Social Conflict. In charting the course of conflict in large scale international disputes, the authors concluded that conflict takes on five transformations:
- The first transformation involves the efforts that people use to get their way in a conflict. They start out as light tactics to influence the other side and steadily progress to heavier often threatening tactics.
- The second transformation concerns the issues involved in the conflict. The issue might start out as small and singular in nature, but they proliferate as the conflict continues.
- The third transformation involves the attribution theory. The parties start with a focus upon the issues themselves, but the conflict then transforms to conflict about the personalities and dispositions of the other side.
- The fourth transformation involves the goals of the parties in conflict. The parties might begin with a goal of doing well in the conflict or getting the matter dealt with quickly and efficiently. As the conflict continues unabated, the goals of the parties start to transform at first from doing well to winning and finally to hurting the other side.
- The fifth transformation relates to who the conflict affects. At the start, the conflict might only be between two parties, but as it continues other parties must get involved. At its extreme (like the Arab-Israeli conflict) the world is drawn in on this conflict.
Whether the conflict is on the international stage or in the workplace, the transformations take on the same character. 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.
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 “in need of 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.
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.
This model should 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 should be used to help identify negative and positive behaviours and to encourage proactive approaches to managing the workplace.
About the Author
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 Workplace Mediation (Carswell, upcoming 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 and at Royal Roads University.