Should companies encourage or discourage workplace conflicts?
A recent New York Times article about the corporate culture at Amazon generated a great deal of critical discussion about this.
If you have a conflict with someone in a professional context, what is the best response?
- Option A. Just ignore them and get back to work, try to avoid them in the future.
- Option B. Actually confront the person.
A recent survey including a wide range of working professionals found that most would choose Option A.
Why? There is a widespread belief that ignoring and avoiding a person in the workplace is:
- Less psychologically harmful
- More socially acceptable
- Generally preferred by their organization
If you believe these things, think again.
The actual evidence shows us that…
1. Option A is more psychologically harmful
The truth is that ostracism—being ignored or excluded by others—is much more psychologically harmful than you might expect.
Laboratory studies consistently find that even a minimal event (such as being left out of an impromptu game of “catch” by complete strangers) can have dramatic effects on your mood, self-esteem, and even general sense of belonging, meaning, and purpose in life.
More recent studies conducted in the workplace find that ostracism is actually even more psychologically damaging than overt negative interactions like bullying and harassment!
Employees who feel ostracized are also significantly more likely to leave their jobs. Not only is this turnover incredibly costly for the employer, it can lead to a significantly higher rate and severity of mental health problems for departing employees (read more at https://www.lunacounselingcenter.com/).
2. Option A is less socially acceptable
Even compared to employees who are overtly bullied or harassed, employees who are ostracized have significantly more negative perceptions of their coworkers, jobs, and organizations.
Many will share these perceptions with others, which can damage the employer’s brand and reputation.
This should be especially troubling if you are a manager.
Research suggests that—to at least some degree—most employees think that their managers are bullies. A big part of this perception is not listening or paying attention to them.
The result of this? The more negatively an employee perceives their manager, the more likely they are to deliberately waste time and resources, do sloppy work, and even damage or steal company property.
3. Option A really isn’t preferred by organizations
We already discussed how Option A can result in more counterproductive behavior, increase costly turnover rates, and even damage the brand or reputation of an organization.
Organizations generally should favor Option B.
Perhaps Amazon’s approach to culture (encouraging conflict) does sometimes take things too far.
But then again, it is very important to keep in mind that direct conflict is often better than the alternative.