The National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (the “Standard”) defines a psychologically healthy and safe workplace as “a workplace that promotes workers’ psychological well-being and actively works to prevent harm to worker psychological health including in negligent, reckless, or intentional ways.” In a psychologically safe workplace, individuals feel free to be themselves, they feel supported, and they can express their thoughts without fear of negative consequences. When a workplace is psychologically safe, employees feel safe to speak up because they trust that conflict will be managed effectively.

The Standard identifies the 13 psycho-social factors that can impact an employee’s psychological response to their work and work conditions. When these factors are present in a workplace, they contribute to positive psychological health and safety. One of the factors impacting psychological safety is Civility and Respect. A work environment where civility and respect are present is one where employees and leaders are respectful and considerate in how they interact with one another and with others. In this work environment:

  • People treat each other with respect and consideration in the workplace.
  • The workplace effectively handles problems, including conflict, effectively.
  • People from all backgrounds are treated fairly in the workplace.
  • Unnecessary conflict is kept to a minimum.
  • The workplace has effective ways of addressing inappropriate behaviour by employees, and customers or clients.

Conflict is a natural, and some would argue, necessary part of any workplace. Healthy conflict can fuel innovation and productivity, but negative conflict can be damaging to individuals and the work environment. How conflict is managed can have a significant impact on psychological safety. When conflict is not managed or resolved effectively, difficult conversations are avoided, allowing conflict to escalate. Individuals engage in avoidance and often competition, and there is little collaboration. Trust is eroded and psychological safety is threatened.

When conflict is managed and resolved effectively, individuals have the trust and confidence to speak up. They know they will be supported to work through conflict in a collaborative way, which creates a sense of psychological safety.

There is a clear connection between how conflict is handled in a workplace and the level of psychological safety. We can see this connection through the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI). Researchers Thomas and Kilmann developed the TKI in 1974 after studying how workers engage in conflict in the workplace. They observed a pattern of how people resolved conflict and distilled it down to five methods or modes: competition; avoidance; accommodation; collaboration; and compromise.

The best outcomes of conflict happen when those in conflict engage with each other through collaboration, and this is also where we find the highest level of psychological safety. Collaborating (often referred to as ‘win win’) involves working with others to find solutions that fully satisfy everyone’s concerns. Collaboration often takes the form of exploring a disagreement to learn from each other’s insights and working to find a creative solution. Collaboration in conflict resolution leads to higher-quality outcomes, commitment to resolution, and better communications, which strengthen relationships. This conflict resolution behaviour also contributes to psychologically safety by building trust.

Leaders play a key role in conflict management, and they have significant influence over the level of psychological safety in the workplace. Leaders can support psychological safety through effective conflict management by modeling conflict competent behaviour. When conflict arises, leaders should facilitate open dialogue between others and, if required, mediate to help them work towards resolution. Leaders should encourage and model active listening, empathy, and collaboration. Leaders can also support a workplace environment of conflict resolution by equipping their teams with the skills and tools necessary to manage conflict constructively through training and resources to help them navigate disagreements and resolve disputes in a healthy and respectful manner.

Psychological safety in the workplace is the responsibility of all workplace parties and everyone in the workplace has a role to play in managing and resolving conflict effectively. Investing in conflict management and resolution skills and competencies should be a priority for leaders who want to promote and support a culture of conflict resolution, and a psychologically safe and respectful workplace.

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