‘Positive Neutrality’ As a Method for Resolving Workplace Conflict

The average working American spends between 39.7 and 42.8 hours per week at work. Some Americans log even more time in their workplace. This amounts to more than half as many hours that we spend with colleagues as with our families in a typical month.

With that much time spent together, is it any wonder that conflicts arise when the pressures of work increase?

Conflicts stem from any number of sources. Disagreements about responsibilities, pay rates, work style discrepancies, and basic personality differences can account for much of the discord among employees. Just like other relationships in life, workplace relationships require attention and sometimes even intervention when conflicts become a barrier to a healthy work environment. It is wise to address conflict in its infancy to avoid it festering and becoming more toxic.

A clear pathway to a healthy workplace is good morale and a sense of teamwork. Building a strong team, recognizing effort and being an active, participating manager can keep conflicts from becoming feuds.

Even with the best preventative measures, human nature is such that wherever there are multiple people in a common area for an extended period of time, conflict will arise. Insert power struggles, differing ideals and values and the innate challenges of communication into the mix and there is great potential for discord.

Managing workplace conflict is a highly nuanced practice; there is no cookie-cutter approach or one-size-fits-all model. Overly complex conflict resolution strategies tend to shut people down who are already frustrated. Overly simplistic strategies don’t inspire much confidence.

A happy medium is to teach and work from a mindset of positive neutrality. It’s a concept most often discussed in terms of conflict between nations in which one attempts to cooperate or make peace among all parties in a dispute without taking sides. While teaching this concept to a group of frustrated employees may feel futile, it is game changing on a number of levels. Positive neutrality generally follows along the same concepts as Don Miguel Ruiz’ The Four Agreements. Conflict management in the workplace is an ideal place to merge these theories.

Workplace conflict resolution is also similar to couples counseling, in that you want to foster the best possible outcome in a mutually respectful way. This requires acknowledging positive attributes and troubleshooting the difficult areas. One must have ground rules to keep the dialogue feeling safe and open. The atmosphere of positive neutrality will foster good energy and enable people to feel open to the concepts in Ruiz’ guide: 1. Be impeccable with your word. 2. Don’t take anything personally. 3. Don’t make assumptions. 4. Always do your best.

How would this work? Let’s set the stage: Two employees have been bickering about responsibilities at work. A conflict resolution meeting is planned for the two with their manager.

Manager: “Thank you for agreeing to meet with me today. Before we get started we need to develop some ground rules for the conversation so that we can keep communication moving forward. What are some rules that you feel would help you to feel listened to and respected in today’s meeting?”

Employee 1: “I think we should have a rule about interrupting. I hate being interrupted.”

Employee 2: “And I don’t think anyone needs to be pointing fingers, either. That doesn’t help.”

Manager: “Great, those are both good ground rules. I would also suggest that we approach this meeting with a sense of positive neutrality in that we try to remain neutral with thoughts and feelings and lean toward positive intentions and peace.”

Employee 1: “How can I be neutral or positive? I feel like he doesn’t listen to me or give any acknowledgement for all the things I do around here.”

Employee 2: “That’s ridiculous. I don’t know where you get this stuff.”

Manager: “The culture of positive neutrality and the Four Agreements is a good place to start shifting our mindset. When we come to the room with these four tenets in mind, and the energy of positive neutrality, we can move away from our biases and find a middle ground with ourselves and with one another.”

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Employee 1 and 2 (glancing at one another with skepticism): “Okay.”

The merging positive neutrality culture with a mindset of Ruiz’s agreements, sprinkled with some couple’s counseling wisdom can be used in conflict resolution meetings, but truly begins in the workplace. It is in the way meetings are run, in the way people are trained, in the decision-making processes and communication from the top down. It is a cultural shift that starts with leadership and demonstrates openness, positive outlook and mutual accountability.

The use of these principals in the workplace culture also demands something personal of your employees. While it is theoretically possible to infuse these concepts into a work setting and ignore them in the “real world” (outside of work), it is not likely. We like to create and generalize meanings to make sense of things in our minds. So while an employer cannot demand that a worker think in a certain way, applying these principles to the work setting is likely to assist with the personal lives of employees as well.

As Simon Kilpatrick shared in this interview, “Not everybody at work is going to get along. Some people will click, others won’t.”

Perfect harmony isn’t the goal; improved ability to communicate and maintain respect is by far more realistic and attainable