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Arguments at work? How does conflict start? Understanding the Conflict Zone

Mediation 19th July 2013

This blog started as part of a longer piece looking at links between the recent brutal killing of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich and a victim of bullying, but it became clear it would better stand as a separate article.  In this blog I look at our ideas of identity and how conflict can arise between people.

Who are we, as people?  Taking as an analogy the concept of an onion with a number of layers, at my core I have an identity that I consider is ‘Me’. Around that I have a set of basic needs, which are common to everyone, and which are reflected in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  These are things such as basic security and food, love and acceptance, on up to ‘self-actualisation’.  Around that core of ‘Me’ and the inner layer of ‘My Needs’ I have as further layers a set of beliefs and of values that have developed over time, influenced by my upbringing and environment, and shaped by experiences through life.  My Needs, and my Beliefs and Values are what motivate my Behaviours, the next layer of the onion.

And across the room at work there is another ‘Me’, a colleague with whom I work, with his or her own set of Needs, Beliefs and Values, and Behaviours.

That colleague, called ‘You’ let’s say, does something that affects me in a way that I don’t like.  I don’t really know ‘You’ very well.  I don’t know what You’s Needs, Values and Beliefs are, so I don’t know what has motivated You’s behaviour.  I therefore have to interpret You’s behaviour by reference to my own Beliefs and Values, and the extent to which You’s behaviour affects my Needs, either positively or, in this case, negatively.  My reaction then drives my Behaviours in response.  If I have a passive-aggressive style I might sulk, make it very plain by the expression on my face that I am not happy, and perhaps make a sarcastic comment.

This is where ‘Attribution Theory’ also has a part to play, in understanding both You’s and my own behaviour.  If You behaves in a negative way towards me, I tend to attribute the cause of that internally, and interpret the behaviour as an aspect of their personality, as being because You is an unpleasant or a bad person.  Of course if I am aware of my own grumpy behaviour I know full well that is because the neighbours were having a row last night and it kept me awake and its because I’m tired; or I might say ‘Well, You was horrid to me, so what can they expect?’  I tend to be understanding of myself and use ‘External Attribution’ to blame it on the external circumstances.

At its core I have justified my own negative behaviour towards someone else by means of a belief of the ‘rightness’ of my position.  In my work I see this in the cases that crop up on occasion where it is the person bringing the complaint of bullying who in fact turns out to be displaying bulling behaviours, but it lies behind much of the negative behaviour that I investigate in workplace complaints.

One reason why bullying mediation can be so helpful an approach is because it allows space and time for ‘You’ to explain his or her needs, beliefs and values in a way that ‘I’ can understand, perhaps for the first time; and vice versa.  Once ‘I’ and ‘You’ have a better understanding of each others’ needs and motivations, then they are in a better place to work out how they can work together so that both their needs are met.