Why it’s time we embrace confrontation at work

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“Sorry!” – it’s a common British phrase that’s often remarked on when discussing British politeness. British people don’t like confrontation – whether at home, social situations, or work. This might keep us all amicable, but what are the bigger ramifications of not speaking up, especially at work?

Perhaps it's impacting your work life balance. An Aviva study found nearly one million Brits may 'secretly' be juggling caring duties with work, with some saying they’ve kept it secret because they don't want others to think they aren't fulfilling work responsibilities. Our own research has also shown that 20 percent of British working women won’t ask for help on workplace issues for fear of a ‘pest’. It’s clear something must change.

Confrontation may make you think of aggressive arguments, but it can be positive. Everyone faces issues at work, but how are employees supposed to resolve them if they don’t discuss them? Or, perhaps they are speaking to some people regularly but aren’t making headway. Feeling ignored or stuck in an ‘echo chamber’ is common, and reiterates the importance of giving employees a way to seek advice from outside their circle. Tech solutions are making this easier, enabling cross-department conversations and connecting employees across different companies who can help one another. The insights from them also falsify classic generalisations; our own Rungway data shows that generalisations like "women are more anxious than men" or "men prefer status" are too simplistic.

Generally, people avoid speaking up about work issues because of fear. That's why having both anonymous and public conversation channels within companies is vital. It means employees don't have to worry about jeopardising their role, while companies get a true reading on their culture and can resolve issues before they cause disaster. Employer branding is more important than ever, as sites such as Glassdoor make it easy for potential employees to find out company ‘secrets’. 

These company secrets come in many forms, but can cause serious damage if not dealt with. Uber suffered major brand damage when ex-employee Susan Fowler published sexual harassment and sexism allegations in a viral blog post. Uber then created an anonymous hotline for employees to report sexual harassment and discrimination, which received more than 200 claims. Those affected finally had a safe opportunity to speak.

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These problems aren’t just limited to discriminatory behaviour either. A 2014 Freakonomics episode, ‘Failure is your friend’, covered “go fever" at NASA. When a boss gets “go fever” with a project, people feel they can’t raise potential failures because of internal politics, momentum, and egos. NASA’s 1986 Challenger launch was a key example. Engineers recommended the launch be postponed for a third time due to potential motor failure from the cold January air, but NASA launched anyway. The shuttle broke apart, killing all crew members. Engineers knew this might happen – so why wasn't it stopped? According to engineer Allan McDonald: organisational bureaucracy, arrogance from historical success, and money.

There may not be a simple fix for every issue, but if a company has tech that enables real-time insights, then they will ultimately be better off. Our British approach to confrontation won’t change overnight, but giving employees the tools to speak up is a big step in the right direction. 

Originally published on CityAM