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Relationships and Interpersonal Conflict

Recent business surveys suggest that the main source of stress in the workplace, at every level of the organization, is interpersonal relationships. Businesses are now spending money to create wellness programs, which include counseling and consultation services, to help employees cope with this negative organizational issue. These studies further indicate that the two most important factors that make staff feel positive about their work environment are the respect they are given and the recognition of their contribution in the workplace. Organizations are beginning to understand that respect is a core value that cannot be overlooked.

Interpersonal work problems can be exacerbated when the other person in the conflict is a family member. Conflicts are often intensified in the family workplace since the individual must not only work with the family member, but often has to interact with that same person outside the business milieu in a family or extended family situation. The question to be asked then is: Are family conflict problems and their solutions different from other work-related interpersonal relationship problems? The simple answer is no; they are not different. Family conflicts can potentially be more intense, have more levels of complexity, and have a longer history, but like all interpersonal relationship problems, they are about people struggling to communicate and to relate to one another.

Recently the Canadian Policy Research Networks Inc. – an Ottawa think tank – released the findings from their national survey. The results showed that what the 2500 employed Canadians surveyed considered "very important" in a job was to be treated with respect. One of the lead investigators said there are clear links between low morale, increased absenteeism and high turnover.

Before going any further, let us consider for a moment the concept of conflict. In western culture, conflict carries a negative connotation, whereas in some eastern cultures; it is seen as an opportunity for change. At its core, conflict is really a difference of opinion concerning a particular issue. Some people would argue that no real learning or creative thinking could take place without differences of opinion and information.

In western culture, conflict carries a negative connotation; whereas in some eastern cultures, it is seen as an opportunity for change.

Conflict changes from positive to negative when differences of opinion are expressed in a disrespectful way. Once one has been verbally or physically accosted or humiliated they may choose to retaliate and defend themselves however they judge best. This leads to a negative, destructive spiral. All too often, the actual content of the disagreement gets lost in the negative interpersonal conflict and the emotional injuries are all that are remembered. When the conflict turns negative and emotional, logic and reason are among the first casualties. Many of us have ended up defending an irrational position simply because we have felt under attack or were trying to redress an affront to our pride.

So, what are some solutions? The business needs to start by identifying what significant values the family members and their organizational members hold regarding respectful communication and interpersonal relationships. A survey should be conducted to establish what these values are for all members of the organization. The similarities in the results will undoubtedly outweigh the differences by a large margin. Then, with everyone's agreement and support, the organization can co-create with their employees a respectful workplace model based on these mutually held values. Everyone in the organization, family members as well, must agree to hold themselves, each other and the organization itself accountable for all actions and for respectful communication. Remember, talking the talk is different from actually walking the walk.

The above commitment and processes will assist organizations in creating respectful workplaces, which in turn positively change the corporate cultures. Reinforcement of corporate culture change is important for all people in the organization to understand that the standard has been raised for good. The literature states that change happens more quickly and last s longer when it is endorsed and supported by the executive of the organization. The shift to respectful communication and positive relationships at the family business level will spill over from the executive and permeate every part of the organization.

Interpersonal workplace changes are all part of larger societal value changes. Many types of behaviours that were acceptable twenty years ago are no longer acceptable today. What people can do and say at work has changed dramatically over the years. In general, expectations within family life about the treatment of extended family, spouses and children have changed as well. Why should respectful communication and relationships be any different for family members and their employees?

In today's changing world, the long-term success of organizations and their personnel is tied to the establishment of respect as a cornerstone of relationships. Mutual trust, open communications and fair treatment seems like rather sound values to help organizations and their employees face the new global economic realities.

Ron Sparrow, MSW, RSW
Vice President
Source Line Corporate Wellness Services Inc.

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