Why avoiding conflict is so detrimental to wellbeing

Mark Lomas rs1

Brits are famous for their love of ‘banter’ and their avoidance of conflict but Mark Lomas – Head of Culture at Lloyd’s of London – tells us that, from a wellbeing at work perspective, this is the wrong way round and why conflict must be embraced to create a culture of psychological safety, where employees feel they can speak up…

Lomas has worked in many industries from finance to media, in many locations around the world, and has a raft of awards and accolades to his name. That makes him ideally placed to talk about creating a culture of psychological safety at our sister event The Watercooler on 25 & 26 April.

He’s on a mission to create an environment where employees feel that they can speak up and challenge the status quo… quite a challenge, particularly in a British company culture, as he tells us in this interview…

Do you think creating psychological safety varies from industry to industry?

Each industry has its own peculiarities – but the issues aren’t necessarily different. They might just require different solutions.

Like firstly, the ability to speak up and challenge something and to what extent an employee feels they can do that. Ideally, I want to create environments where people are confident in the value they bring to conversations, whether they are agreeing or disagreeing with the group consensus.

And, secondly, the idea of how you create an inclusive culture where people can share their personal experiences – and unacceptable behaviours aren’t tolerated, like inappropriate ‘banter’.

Banter is a very British word. Sometimes when it’s used it has an air of humour, even acceptability, about it. Do you think the definition of this word has shifted in recent years?

Yes. Banter is a bad word when you go into a tribunal. If you’re relying on banter as your defence you’re probably not in a good place.

It depends very much on your personal relationship with the individual. You can have a joke or ‘banter’ with personal friends. But in an office environment, you have to be very careful because you don’t necessarily know everybody well.

Unfortunately, when banter is used by those in positions of power it can be disempowering to those who don’t hold the power. Generally, in British business that divide falls along race, gender, class and other diversity lines.

Therefore what is socially acceptable for one dominant group may not be for another. That’s when the ability to challenge becomes really important.

Click on the video above to find out more about why avoiding conflict is so detrimental to wellbeing and for practical ideas on how to give employees permission to speak up

So how much employees feel they can challenge what is being said is an indicator of the level of psychological safety an organisation has achieved?

Yes, absolutely. And when I say speaking up or challenging, I don’t necessarily mean on the large end, such as fraud. I’m talking about challenging senior decision makers by being able to say, “I think that idea can be improved by…” or challenging remarks you believe are inappropriate, whether accidental or intentional. Speaking up can be particularly difficult in British culture where we tend to avoid conflict.

Ah, tell me more about the Brits not valuing conflict and why avoiding conflict is so detrimental to wellbeing…

The British have a very indirect manner of speaking. Go anywhere else in the world people will tell you it’s really hard to know what a British person thinks. It sounds polite, but you can miss the nuance!

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As a generalisation, conflict is seen as a bad thing, to be avoided, in British business. The problem with this is that speaking up necessitates a level of conflict.

The challenge is also that employees then get a reputation for being “difficult” or “obtrusive”, isn’t it, which puts them off saying how they really feel?

Yes. That fear of being seen as difficult or obtrusive creates a culture of ‘group think’ or, as I like to call it, the ‘Festival of Congratulations’; when you go to a committee or board meeting and everyone is sat around congratulating each other for their work.

In these situations I always find myself thinking ‘hold on, there’s got to be something that could stand a little improvement, could there not?’

In a culture like this, where conflict is not tolerated, people tend to either agree or stay quiet when asked what they think – even if they disagree. Over the long term, that disengages employees.

It’s why I’m a big fan of building the infrastructures that facilitate conflict and challenging exchanges of perspectives – where permission is explicit, not just implied. There has to be an acceptance that managed conflict is a good thing.

So, how do you create an infrastructure for conflict?

You can do this at a team and organisational level.

For example, in my team we run problem solving sessions. We take a complex issue and purposely rip it apart over half an hour in order to put it back together, better. Everyone is given express permission to agree or disagree.

What I’ve learnt running these sessions is that, to avoid the extroverts dominating the discussion, it’s better if people can write their views down on a post-it note rather than have to stick up their hand. This works for introverts and extroverts.

This is also a great way to foster collaboration between different areas in a specialist team because the problem solving meeting gives everyone express permission to give their perspectives and potential solutions.

What about managing conflict at the organisational level?

Again, you need structures which expressly give that permission to speak up, outside things like the grievance or whistleblowing process. We do that by having ECFs (employee change forms) in each area of the business at Lloyd’s. They offer a formal mechanism to challenge the organisation’s plans in response to, for example, the employee survey.

It’s especially important to have these mechanisms in organisations where confidence in the system has been damaged or there’s a perception that feedback gets ignored. Employees need to feel protected in expressing a view, and should be encouraged to do so.

Over time, confidence increases. You have to be willing to face issues that arise head on – and show a concerted effort to do something about it. Bad practice that has previously been hidden may not be contained even when confidence increases.

What does that mean, when an organisation is not able to contain bad practice anymore?

It could be that a grievance comes up out of the process, or various complaints. Those are par for the course, really, and must be dealt with. But once you start to deal with these conflicts in an open manner, once you address the issues, you get a huge leap in engagement, trust and confidence – because employees can see that the system works.

You’ve been through this process several times. Have you ever not had a ‘happy ending’?

No, I can’t say I have. There have been places where the journey has been more difficult but that generally happens when the organisation hasn’t been mature enough to see it through… but that won’t be the case for the Lloyd’s market.

…on that cliffhanger, you’ll have to come along and meet Mark in person, and contribute to the conversation, come along to our sister event the Watercooler on April 25th and 26th, 2023. 

The Watercooler, named in recognition of those crucial moments of connection between employees, is a free to attend conference and exhibition which demonstrates that wellbeing IS the future of work. For themes that were ‘hot topics’ at last year’s event, like line manager wellbeing, see this article.

Taking place at Excel London, The Watercooler event is where you can gather to join ideas together, make connections, learn from peers’ experiences and find the right solutions for your organisation – whatever its size and shape.

For reasons why this is a must-attend event for anyone interested in workplace wellbeing, see this article here

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