People Matters: Sophie Wade

In this weeks people matters blog, we spoke with Sophie Wade, workforce innovation specialist and author of Empathy Works to discuss the impacts of workplace conflict on employees and how we can drive change with internal communication.

What are the main drivers for workplace conflict? Can you give some examples?

Conflicts arise from misunderstandings. We are all human, and the more you understand about your employees, the fewer, often incorrect, assumptions you need to make. A lack of clarity and poor communication skills frequently lead to workplace tension or conflict. 

We are seeing a good amount of conflict between generations, much of it resulting from their different perspectives and contexts. For example, to older generations “lifelong employment” means being employed at one company all their life and then retiring. That was the norm when they started work—they were guaranteed a job for life and a pension. However, to Generation Z this phrase reflects their belief they will have to work all their life–25% of Generation Z employees don’t expect to be able to retire because pension funds are under-funded, and we are living longer.

Another example is that Gen X and Baby Boomers typically expected a promotion within two or three years in the early years of their careers. While these days, 75% of Gen Z workers expect a promotion within a year. This may be appropriate considering the faster pace of business now. In addition, their entry level jobs involve work that is three to four years more advanced than previous generations were given now that automation takes care of most repetitive tasks. 

To bridge the gaps and differences, practicing empathy is beneficial, putting yourself in other people’s shoes and connecting with their points of view and experiences. This means listening carefully to others’ perspectives, ensuring you are clear about what they mean, and making an effort to understand their backgrounds, strengths, and interests.

What are the impacts of workplace conflict? 

The greatest impact happens when employees quit. Research shows people leave bosses, not companies. They leave because their boss doesn’t understand, value, or engage them or help them to develop their skills. A potentially worse result is if the employee in question stays and undermines the workplace. Once disengaged, they can distract other employees, reduce morale, and even sabotage work products, thereby having a more extensive negative effect on overall productivity. Workplace conflict can have considerable damage.

In your opinion, what’s the best way of managing the diverse needs of a workforce?

Previously work was linear, static, and moving at a steady pace. Tasks could often be done independently. Now, business conditions are less predictable, customer behaviours keep changing, so non-routine and project work have grown significantly. We are needing to frequently work closely together in teams across disciplines. We must have a greater understanding of our colleagues to be able to communicate and collaborate effectively. 

It is crucial to build trust-based, empathetic relationships between team members. Organisations need to create a sense of belonging and safety, so every individual feels comfortable speaking up and sharing their ideas. Moreover, everyone engages most when they know how their role and work contributes to the organisation’s purpose and mission. At the same time, people want some sense of personal control and autonomy such as how, when, and or where they work. Modern work environments need to accommodate all of this.

How do you cultivate a culture that respects differences and encourages a sense of community and belonging?

This is about building out those timeless values such as trust, empathy, inclusion and honesty. When times are turbulent, workers can be distracted and even disoriented by the changes going on around them. Timeless values help ground and anchor employees as well as help connect people fostering mutual support. 

Regularly holding events virtually and in person can help people to get to know each other, create common ground, and build and deepen relationships on shared memories. Things as simple as discovering that a colleague has the same type of pet as you or binge watches the same TV show, for example, when going bowling as a group, can help you better relate to them and feel you are part of the same community at work.

Internal communications and employee engagement aimed at keeping a diverse workforce engaged and happy – what’s your secret for success? 

The future of work is technology driven to a large degree. Companies, co-workers, and customers are interconnected. Businesses are now highly digitalised. Internal communications need to keep up. It’s important to appreciate that people like to be reached in different ways – such as using email, social media or using platforms like Trello. We still need to be practicing empathy and listening carefully as well as watching for signals and cues while using new technologies. This helps us all establish and model good habits so that we can work together well wherever we are. 

We are also seeing a shift in how leaders handle employee relations, moving away from “command and control” styles to more coaching roles. Giving employees more responsibility and information, leaders are helping their team members engage, perform better, and achieve greater successes.

The talent scene – what are the current opportunities and challenges? 

Talent mobility is a key issue now. Managers are not yet well-equipped to move team members within organisations to develop their careers. This presents a problem because younger employees in particular want to keep learning and growing to stay upskilled and competitive. Research by LinkedIn shows that it is currently easier to advance by changing company than developing internally.

What’s your take on the ‘quiet quitting’ and ‘quiet firing’ debate? Do you think this discourse will prompt conflict? 

Historical data from Gallup shows that for years, prior to the pandemic as well, approximately 12% of people have been disengaged, those actively ‘undermining’ the company. Only around 13% have been engaged. Therefore, most of the workforce is ‘not engaged’—meaning that they are doing their job, but not putting in extra effort—which is the definition of ‘quiet quitters’. It is up to corporate leaders to motivate, engage and incentivise people to do more.

‘Quiet firing’ is a toxic concept. A manager treats someone so badly that they leave voluntarily so the manager doesn’t have to fire them. When remaining employees hear about and discuss this type of behaviour, it has a very negative impact on morale and engagement. If somebody is no longer a good fit, an effective approach is to work with them to reassign them internally, aligning their work better with their skills and strengths. In addition, hiring a replacement typically costs at least 120% of the person’s salary.

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