We are all looking forward to it: "business as usual". Our coronavirus social bubble, even the professional one, is finally about to burst again. At the same time, we are also wary of the “new normal”. What if our job is threatened or just won’t be the same anymore? What if the combination of work and family life all of a sudden becomes more complicated? What if the bar is abruptly set (too) high??
Back to business at two speeds
My employer may want to make good the loss as soon as possible and may suddenly see completely new opportunities, requiring equally completely new skills and knowledge from me and my colleagues. Or my employer may take hygiene regulations rather lightly and refrain from interfering when my colleagues (in my opinion) casually disregard the social distancing rules. All of these occasions may give rise to new social irritations or a new feeling of social crisis.
Studies of social climate and social relationships already show that those “social irritations” are an important breeding ground for social conflict and Us versus Them thinking. Especially in contexts of negative work relationships, small things may quickly grow out of proportion. “Back to business” can thus easily lapse into “back to” quarrels and fuss.
Understanding conflicting values
At such a time, reframing conflicts as conflicting values can be an important tool. My employer who suddenly sees entirely new opportunities, may be letting the value of “embracing a new reality” prevail, while I, on the other hand, am most grateful for being able to go back to my “old, familiar’ working environment. Or my coworkers’ preference of “connectedness” may be diametrically opposed to my feeling of “safety first”.
Research all over the world confirms that there are 10 universal values (Schwartz, 1992; 2012). In other words, there are 10 categories of things that people find important. And those 10 values, although they are all positive and desirable, are in tension with each other. On the one hand, there is an area of tension between values that seek out the new and values that appreciate the familiar. Think, for example, of the colleague who wants to take a completely different approach to meetings for a change, and the fierce resistance he or she meets from those coworkers who have been doing things the same way for years. On the other hand, there is an area of tension between values that are about the individual versus values that concern the group. Personal ambition, for example, can often collide with the feeling of solidarity within a team.
And because people differ in the types of value they find the most important, this may lead to conflicts. It would be very useful then, to have someone who understands that opposing values are at the root of the conflict. Someone who can see that all of the emotions, reproaches and misunderstandings actually stem from positive things, i.e. what people find important. It may not do away with the conflict instantly, but it does create space and opportunities for mutual understanding.
Dialogue is key
It’s one thing to understand conflicts, it’s another thing to dare to engage in a dialogue. Such a dialogue starts at the micro level in the organization, in the relationship between employee and immediate supervisor. Supervisors are, as it were, the human interface between the potentially conflicting value systems, between the complex business context and the daily micro context of departments and coworkers. Supervisors must master both the language of the business and the language of the people. If they deal with social irritations in an assertive and fair manner, if they identify differences in conflicting values, if they act as a pivot point within the hierarchy and have great coaching skills, then conflicts will fade away a lot faster.
Social dialogue also requires a positive, solution-oriented mindset. “We tend to think in terms of problems instead of solutions”, I recently heard a trade unionist saying. However, working together and talking about solutions nurtures feelings of solidarity and empathy, even in situations of conflicting values. Smart employees and employers know this, and they act accordingly. This of course requires creativity and empathy from both parties. The aim here may be new, supported (post)coronavirus agreements on items such as work pressure, working from home, training, physical, mental and social hygiene.
The coronavirus crisis cannot be overcome by an Us versus Them culture. We are in this together and we need to tackle it together. Resolving the crisis from solidarity and partnership, reasoning from common interests rather than conflicting interests, that is the challenge we all face together, including with the trade unions. In doing so, we will need to continue feeding the dialogue, based on progressive insight. Stubbornly or dogmatically maintaining one’s initial position is no match for today's unpredictable and challenging reality.