Conflict in the Workplace: We Need to Talk

David Liddle

Interview with David Liddle, CEO of culture change experts The TCM Group and the president of a new think tank, The Institute of Organizational Dynamics

As human beings, we are programmed to respond to conflict with retaliation and retribution. It’s a pattern as old as humanity but, as David Liddle of mediation experts The TCM Group affirms, it needn’t be that way – as long as we keep talking. Here, he explains the philosophy and raison d’être of his company.

Thank you for sparing the time to talk to us, Mr Liddle! Could we begin with a few words on what made you pursue a career in conflict resolution?

Following my first degree in Race Relations in the late 1980s and early 90s, I worked in a large UK city and I saw first-hand the levels of violence and community conflicts and the woefully poor attempts to resolve them (if indeed there were any). Inspired by the principles of mediation and restorative justice – something I hadn’t really seen elsewhere in the UK – I decided to set up Leicestershire Mediation Service to help resolve community disputes and to tackle offending and anti-social behaviour. It was one of the first community mediation and restorative justice schemes in the UK. This was when I realised that mediation and dialogue are powerful tools for resolving complex issues. I believe in the enormous capacity for people to do good at times of conflict, change or crisis – when the conditions enable them to do so. It is that passionate desire to create those conditions that has driven me throughout my career.

There are those who shy away from confrontation, arguing that it can get messy very quickly. But you persisted and even founded a company in recognition of it. Would you mind telling us why?

Confrontation is a choice that we make as human beings. Every day, we can choose how we react, how we behave and how we speak to others. And when there’s a choice, there’s always an alternative. I don’t believe that confrontation is an inevitable outcome of conflict – we’re just hardwired as humans to make wrong choices. Witnessing the healing power of mediation, I wanted to enable us to make the right choices. In conflict, we can choose to respond rather than react, and collaborate rather than confront. Really, through mediation, we just help people to understand the impact of their choices and to make new choices – choices which build bridges, not walls.

Since 2001, The TCM Group (TCM) has been mediating workplace conflicts and advocating for more person-centred management practices. You now have an unrivalled track record of working with names such as HSBC and Tesco. What were the initial values you founded the company on?

I don’t believe that confrontation is an inevitable outcome of conflict – we’re just hardwired as humans to make wrong choices. Witnessing the healing power of mediation, I wanted to enable us to make the right choices.

TCM’s founding principle is to help people move from destructive conflict to constructive dialogue. This is a pragmatic and sensible approach to conflict resolution, culture change and people management. In the past few years, my team and I have been helping business leaders to create high-performing organisations by dealing with issues more effectively. I wanted to show people that conflict doesn’t have to be detrimental or disruptive – if they incorporate the values of dialogue, empathy and cooperation. I believe that dialogue is the key that opens the treasure chest of innovation, creativity, and productivity – which, after all, are the drivers of a succesful business. 

Do you recall any significant obstacles that you and the company encountered when you first started?

Yes, quite a few! The consensus was a complete misunderstanding of mediation. I’d hear: “Is it meditation?” “Is it medication?” “Are you an old hippy preaching peace and love?” This misunderstanding still exists now on many levels. There’s eye-rolling from people wondering whether mediation can genuinely solve problems. Our society believes that justice is served by retribution. It’s an ongoing task of overcoming that ingrained belief and recalibrating the human mind towards restorative justice. 

employees

As the founder of an award-winning conflict resolution company that has been operating for nearly 20 years, what have you found are the best ways to prevent disputes before they arise?

Simply, it’s dialogue – really talking and really listening. We also need to understand that there’s a life cycle to conflict; the more that we can understand this, the better our managers will be at proactively spotting and resolving the issue effectively. These managers need to be confident, competent and courageous in dealing with disputes. Inaction or overreaction don’t work; we need to encourage structural and strategic action. By first understanding the conflict, and then having the ability to talk it through, we turn the conflict into something constructive. It’s important to recognise that conflict should never be designed out of business; good conflict is marked by respectful dialogue, disagreeing well, and listening empathically. In diverse and high-performing teams, we need divergent thought. It’s threefold: accept, understand, and listen to conflict. 

You have spoken elsewhere about compassion as one of the key traits in transitioning back to the office. How do you see a value-based approach to leadership affecting business recovery in these times?

It’s absolutely central. The combination of COVID-19 and the challenges of social justice movements over the last couple of years have brought into sharp relief the need for society to re-evaluate itself. We can do this through the prism of our core values as a society, and on a micro-level through our organisations. I think that we can take the climb to business recovery as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for organisations to rethink their values and use them as a golden thread for their performance processes, HR systems, management and leadership capabilities, and organisational strategy. There is so much evidence to suggest that organisations that do this are the ones that thrive. Values of compassion, kindness, active listening, inclusivity, respect – these aren’t just “nice to haves”; they matter to people. This is the single biggest shake-up as a generation to what it means to be “in work”. COVID was traumatic, so let’s meet in the middle with compassion and flexibility. As a leader, go to the worker – don’t expect the worker to come to you – and do so with compassion, empathy and a deep desire to understand their needs. 

Social justice and employee activism have picked up pace in recent months, placing transparency and honesty at the forefront of corporate communication. How would you advise leaders to respond to these issues and apply this effectively to their management approach?

As a mediator, there’s an emerging “anti-leadership” tendency as a result of recent tragic events. Whilst understood, it’s adversarial and polarising; there’s a dividing line and many are digging trenches. We absolutely must hold people to account but, if we’re going to have these discussions, we can’t do it to the drumbeat of lynch mobs on social media. We need to engage in meaningful, productive dialogue. Much like in mediation, we must dissect to reconstruct. In other words, get all parties around the table and talk about what went wrong and why. What were the conditions that allowed these events to happen? How can we change those systems and processes to bring about a safer environment for all? I call on all leaders to give voices to their employees in a calm-headed and sensible manner, listen to what is said, and work together to provide strategic steps to drive change. The powerful system in organisations and wider society protects destructive behaviours, but we mustn’t be drowned out by voices of hostility and confrontation. We need to allow our people to speak out, and for our leaders and managers to listen up and to act. 

What are the primary benefits that a transformational culture can offer in a post-pandemic setting?

A transformational culture is a culture which is fair, just, inclusive, sustainable, and high-performing. It delivers the core values of an organisation through an evidence-based approach and by reframing the systems and processes of the organisation and making them fit for the challenges of the 21st century. As I mentioned earlier, the most successful businesses are those aligned with clear embedded values; a transformational culture does just that.

tranformational culture model

The combination of enablers and cultures delivers tangible benefits by creating a cultural flow, delivered by a cross-functional team known as the Transformational Culture Hub. The outcomes of a transformational culture include what I call the “7Cs” of transformationalism:  courage, connection, collaboration, common purpose, communication, compassion, and curiosity. These outcomes are reinvested back into the culture, combining with each other to turbocharge the cultural transformation and to raise the organisation to new heights.

The concept of culture presents itself differently to different people. What do you believe are the important attributes of corporate culture and how do you ensure that the culture of an organisation and the climate experienced by employees are aligned?

Culture has millions of definitions – it’s quite personal. But ultimately, culture is the unwritten rules that bind all of us and our beliefs, values, behaviours and interactions. They can also be written in our policies and procedures that guide our systems. It’s a combination of these visible and invisible forces acting collectively on all of us, creating a climate, or a felt experience, that is lived by everyone. Culture lived and climate experienced can be streamlined by creating an overseeing hub that develops the systems and processes to integrate and sustain the culture-climate intersection. This is what we call the Transformational Culture Hub. It’s essentially a cross-functional team comprising executives, HR, unions, leaders, managers, employee groups, and so on.

In your book Transformational Culture, you mention that a psychologically safe work environment is one that welcomes all opinions without fear of ridicule or retribution. What are some ways a company can foster this open culture of dialogue?

The most important act as a leader is to balance the needs of people with the need for a business to be profitable. In the modern workplace, profit isn’t the only driver for success.

Education! The ability of training managers to confidently, competently and courageously facilitate dialogue is key. Leadership must understand the importance of the psychological contract, acting as an example to others by embodying values of trust, mutual respect, and open and transparent communication. It lies in the duty of management to promote a speak-up-and-speak-out culture that empowers their employees. 

What specific leadership characteristics do you see as being the most needed in the new future of work?

The most important act as a leader is to balance the needs of people with the need for a business to be profitable. In the modern workplace, profit isn’t the only driver for success. Leadership should be guided by people-oriented, transformational principles: championing emotional intelligence and empathy, celebrating inclusivity and diversity, and welcoming difference and divergent thought as a sign of strength. These characteristics will shape and build wider processes and systems. Previously thought of as soft skills, these are now vital skills for the 21st century. 

TCM also holds special workshops that aid in corporate resolution, such as investigation skills and negotiation courses, to name but a few. How do these contribute to your goal of transforming the culture of the modern workplace?

These smaller workshops sit within our whole systems model for culture change. Skills and training courses are the processing chip that powers the systems that drive culture, fitting together to create a cohesive and aligned total system. We ensure that everything connects – through our FAIR Model – to make values intrinsic across all suites and services. 

the fair model

Generally speaking, what are some effective communication tools or services that you think companies should utilise more today?

In my Transformational Culture Model, dialogue has primacy. When there’s a problem, we talk about it. Talking is facilitated where necessary and exhausted until a formal route is the last resort. TCM’s entire package of tools and services build on this: from transactional services of quality conversations, facilitated conversations, mediation and team facilitation; to wider transformational services like our Resolution Framework and Transformational Trailblazers. It’s a combination of smaller services and wider processes to ultimately shape culture and promote compassion, collaboration and communication. Dialogue is the most effective tool and service to drive individual, team and collective performance and success. 

To err is human, as Alexander Pope said. Would you consider this the heart of The TCM Group’s brand ethos?

Err…! I think it’s more than that. Humans and all their complexities, wonderfulness and brilliance is what we’re about. Failure is inevitably and naturally a part of that; we need to reframe how we deal with wrongdoing in order to release that inner brilliance. If we destroy people because they make mistakes, then we’re just perpetuating a system of negativity; and if we’re in a destructive conflict, then we can’t be brilliant. Let’s reframe one of the F-words that cause so much harm – “failure” – so that we can move past it, we can learn from it, and we can let people be as wonderful and successful as they can be. 

What can we expect to see from the company in the next decade?

There’s great opportunity for us to grow and develop in terms of what we offer. At a modest level, I envision that what we do and say as a company becomes mainstream and popularised in the workplace. I want dialogue, compassion and transformational culture to be a major part of the debate about the future of work. But aside from modesty, there’s certainly a palpable atmosphere of ambition within The TCM Group. We want our Transformational Culture Model to be implemented in far more organisations, and we have an objective to get our Resolution Framework embedded in every HR department by the end of 2022. We’re excited about the opening of our New York office and the opportunities it’s given us for international expansion into Europe and Asia. 

One thing is for certain: the old cultural orthodoxies of retribution, of “power over” rather than “power with”, command-and-control structures, and a perception of “one rule for them and another for us” are no longer tolerable nor tenable. Surely, as we are all straining every sinew to build a workplace fit for the 21st century, we can no longer leave culture to chance. It’s time to get to work – good luck!

I would like to thank everyone at TCM – employees and consultants – for their unbelievable commitment throughout and (hopefully) post-COVID-19. I am inspired every day by their tenacity and their professionalism and by their unflinching commitment to the purpose and values of our business. You are the catalysts for change and the drivers of innovation and excellence. Thank you! 

Executive Profile

David Liddle

David Liddle, Top 20 HR Most Influential Thinker and author of Transformational Culture, develop a people centred organization for improved performance (Kogan Page). David is CEO of culture change experts The TCM Group and the president of a new think tank, The Institute of Organizational Dynamics.

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