Melbourne Business School News The best way to repair conflict at work, based on research

The best way to repair conflict at work, based on research

A review of more than 100 research papers has revealed five steps for rebuilding a work relationship after disruption, conflict or threat.

The best way to repair work relationships

Relationships are central to workplaces, and there is growing recognition that organisations operate more effectively when connections between colleagues are strong.

But even our most stable work relationships can encounter threats – events that create turbulence and risk throwing the connection off course.

Traditional management literature has focused on larger threats, placing emphasis on how to repair trust with colleagues when there is a belief that it has been violated.

But what do we do if the aggrievance isn't about trust?

"Even small blips – for example, someone being rude to us – can disrupt a relationship and have detrimental effects," says Melbourne Business School Professor of Management Mara Olekalns

"We wanted to understand what you do in this instance. How can you fix it?" 

In a new paper published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, Professor Olekalns and Associate Professor of Management Brianna Barker Caza from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro drew on a novel source of literature to determine the best way to repair a workplace connection that has broken down because of something other than trust violation – the research of marriage counsellors.  

"There's so much strong research that has been done by marriage and resilience experts for repairing personal relationships," Professor Olekalns says. 

"We wanted to determine how these techniques could be directly applied in a workplace setting."

The pair were able to determine which of these techniques could be applied in a workplace setting to both recover from a threat, and also to create more resilient relationships going forward. 

Five steps for repairing a workplace relationship 

Threats to a relationship can take all forms. A relationship threat could be an internal event, such as interpersonal conflict or a perceived injustice in the workplace. Or it could be an external factor that puts strain on the relationship. 

"If I'm going through a divorce for example, it's going to affect how I interact with people at work," Professor Olekalns says. 

"Or I might be an anti-vaxxer – that could seriously disrupt our relationship by causing a misalignment in our values and beliefs, when before, we were working together with a common idea."  

When a threat arises, Professor Olekalns suggests taking the following measures:  

1. Act promptly to re-establish a sense of 'we' 

The easiest way to reinforce the relationship is to quickly start talking about 'we' and 'us' again. 

"You need to address it head on. Sit down with each other and talk about 'how we can move forward'. Don't start pointing the finger and talking about you and I as separate entities," Professor Olekalns says.  

2. Don't ruminate

The speed with which you move to reaffirm the relationship is also critical in order to be able to push through the conflict.  

"There are two ways people react to something bad, one of them being self-immersion.  

"It's been shown that self-immersion – where I dwell on what happened and really analyse the negative impact on me – is detrimental to being able to repair a relationship and move on." 

3. Take a step back   

The alternative to self-immersion, Professor Olekalns says, is self-distancing. 

"It's that old adage of taking a deep breath and counting to 10, or sleeping on it before you send that email. 

"Stepping back and viewing the situation as if you are an external observer reduces the intensity of your feelings and helps you get perspective. 

"You're less likely to see red, and more likely to be able to see a productive solution, or see the positives and ask – can I find the benefits here?" 

4. Reappraise the threat as a shared opportunity 

A critical step in being able to move forward, is being able to reframe the disruption as a shared opportunity that you can overcome together and grow closer from, rather than a negative experience. It’s called glorifying the struggle.  

"Those who can look for benefits, rather than harm, when they encounter an obstacle are more likely to be able to repair the relationship," says Professor Olekalns. 

One of the benefits that comes from a relationship threat is that it provides the opportunity to transform the relationship. 

"Individual resilience literature talks about the transformation potential of bad events," says Professor Olekalns. 

"When examining people who think they've had a meaningful life, one of the key things that leads them to this belief is that when they have encountered difficulties, they've seen them as opportunities to grow and change the world around them."
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Similarly, research comparing couples who ended up divorced with those who didn't, found it was the couples who were able to look back and recall how they got through the bad times that stayed together.

"This can be directly applied to the workplace," says Professor Olekalns.

"If you encounter a threat in the workplace, don't dwell on the potential harms – view it as a learning event and an opportunity to build a stronger relationship from the shared experience." 

5. Do not blame the other person  

And the final step? Don't blame the other person. 

"This really connects back to the very first point of quickly establishing a sense of 'we'”, says Professor Olekalns. 

"View it as a shared threat that you are overcoming together, not something the other person has done to you." 

Advice for creating resilient relationships  

The paper by Professor Olekalns and Professor Caza also offers insight into how to build resilient relationships that are less likely to be impacted by conflicts and threats in the first place. 

Again, focusing on positive emotions and thinking in terms of 'we', 'us', and 'who we are together' are critical.   

In addition, you should try to create an 'emotional bank account' filled with memories of positive experiences.   

"Blips are not isolated events – there is a relationship history that went before and will continue after," says Professor Olekalns. 

"If we have a predominantly positive relationship, we can see this disruption as an exception to the rule – whereas if we've had a rocky relationship in the past, the blip will exacerbate this downward trajectory." 

Marriage counselling guru John Gottman talks about the magic ratio of 'good to bad' being 5:1, in the sense that we need five good experiences to outweigh one bad one. 

To help build resilient work relationships, we should try to store up positive experiences into this emotional bank account, which will create a buffer when a threat disrupts the relationship – as we will immediately have good memories to draw on.  

And what if you are new to a workplace, and that history doesn't exist?   

"Try to find common ground with people right away," Professors Olekalns suggests.   

"It might be a shared love of a particular sporting team, or perhaps a fondness for food and wine. Find that commonality."

To read the full research paper, visit Resetting Relationship Trajectories: A Reconceptualization of the Relationship Repair Process.

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Professor of Management (Negotiations)