Through our work as mediators, we have come to see that mutual trust is a prerequisite for healthy conflict management. When those involved in conflict refuse to participate in mediation with each other, trust is the most frequently cited reason. They either don’t trust the process or they don’t trust that the other party will respect them, behave well during the mediation, or follow through on their commitments. Without trust, people refuse to engage in the conflict resolution even with a professional mediator present.

         Trust means that a person can discuss what really matters to them without significant fear that someone else will use that information against them or judge them negatively for what they are saying, It also means that people believe others on their team will act with good intentions. Trust is built through relationships and must be anchored in a healthy understanding of each person in the relationship.  Trust is also built by using constructive processes for addressing  conflict.

         In a workplace where team members do not openly express their thoughts out of a fear of conflict, mediocre decisions are often the result. When we experience an absence of trust, we waste huge amounts of time and energy investing ourselves in defensive or protective behaviors. We are also reluctant to ask for help or assist each other.

         To avoid such a scenario, we need everyone within our workplace to understand that conflict can actually be helpful when it is built on a bedrock of trust. To put it another way, in order for our teams to engage in positive conflict that leads to better workplace resolutions, we must first trust each other and our processes.

         One significant conflict  we mediated involved a department in a very large organization. A new manager had come into the department with a mandate to make changes, but staff had little to no relationship with her. As a result, the new manager’s decisions were met with suspicion and even outrage.

         When staff challenged the new managers decisions, she responded with defensiveness, and the conflict quickly escalated. The department as a whole did not trust the manager, and the manager didn’t trust the staff. The only way forward for this group was to begin to build relationships with each other so that they could develop trust and learn to engage in positive conflict resolution.

         Developing trusting relationships is hard work, and it involves some risk. It’s often difficult for people to be honest for fear of being judged by others. And yet it’s only when people are vulnerable that strong relationships can be built. Given the risk that some people feel when sharing details about themselves, we encourage leaders to take the first step and model openness.

In our own organization, and when we are leading other groups, one of the ways we build trusting relationships is by leading discussions that help people understand the experiences that have shaped the ways their coworkers think and act. For instance, during team development events, we may ask people to share something that has been significant in their life outside of work in the past year, or we may have them share a story from their childhood. We also use simple personality tools like the “ACHIEVE Personality Dimensions Assessment” to help staff learn and appreciate each other’s preferences and tendencies.

         Given that power is structured by rank in most organizations, leaders must learn to lead by example to create a culture that is not afraid of conflict. Our willingness to share openly as leaders will show employees that it is safe for them to voice their opinions as well. We must also acknowledge and validate others who risk sharing openly.

         If we have the courage to share with openness, we communicate to staff that they are safe to share as well. When we build relationships through sharing who we are and caring for others to disagree, listen to their concerns, and apologize for our mistakes, we show that it is safe for others to do the same.

        As leaders, we must create a culture of trust so that our employees can truly express what they are thinking and feeling when conflict occurs. When our workplaces are safe and people feel that their opinions are heard, they will support decisions more readily even if the outcomes aren’t exactly what they had wanted. This results in superior decision making and organizational outcomes. It builds a culture where people bring their best to the table.

The preceding is adapted from The Culture Question by Randy Grieser, Eric Stutzman, Wendy Loewen, Michael Labun ©2019 by ACHIEVE Publishing and published with permission from the authors.