Screenshot 2021 09 08 at 23 21 22

Workplace conflict and the art of a good apology


Have you ever been so upset at work that, heart racing, you’ve had to leave the room in order to contain your emotion? It felt like a fight – but no fists were thrown and no voices were raised. You felt affected by the incident for days, perhaps months afterward, but you didn’t say anything for fear of making it “a thing”.

If you have, then you have likely experienced a form of workplace trauma, and Flexability consultant, Amanda Houpt, says you’re not the only one.

“I’ve done hundreds of focus groups. I’ve talked to thousands of people about their experiences at work. One of the things that’s really clear to me is that when workplaces have toxicity, when they’re not inclusive, when basic respect and psychological safety are violated, it has a really profound, and even a traumatic, impact on workers.”

Houpt is a human resources expert with a background in public health, and she has a particular interest in the way interpersonal violence plays out in subtle ways at work. It’s a subject that organizations and individuals don’t really pay attention to, but it can be a serious problem.

Exploring trauma

“Say, for instance somebody has been let go or they decided to quit, maybe in a moment where they felt like they couldn’t take anymore. If you talk to that person at that very vulnerable time and even six months after those things have happened, one of the things people begin to do – and they don’t always use these words – [is that] they’re exploring trauma.

“People have post-traumatic stress disorder that comes out of work situations all the time.”

In fact, Houpt points out, there are significant overlaps between the dynamics at play in domestic violence situations and workplace conflict.

“We tend to think about things like domestic violence and workplace harassment as being really different from each other, but the basic power and control that’s at the root of it, the basic building blocks are really similar – and in fact the trauma that people experience and the loss of dignity and the shame that people feel around it are very similar.

“And if you think about the workplace dynamic, that power and control piece is absolutely huge because you’re often working in a hierarchical organization. Think about the way we talk about a ‘boss’ and ‘subordinate’, these things are very rooted in hierarchy. So the way someone is treated or mistreated at work, power and control is at the heart of it.”

But toxic organizations often don’t know that they’re toxic, and this is where experts like Houpt, whose passion lies in training, can be particularly helpful.

Subtle acts of inclusion

She says one of the things she likes to do is observe the way a team interacts, and it’s often in the things that are missing in an interaction that you can start to understand the dynamics at play. What you’re looking for, she says, are subtle acts of inclusion and respect.

“If respect is the norm, it fades into the background, you don’t see it. But when it’s not the norm, you really begin to feel it. When it feels like people don’t afford you the basic decency of saying ‘hello’ when you hop on to a meeting, when if it feels like you’re constantly being commanded to do things, when if it feels like you’re doing work and you never know if somebody got the work that you did, if they used it or appreciated it.

“That’s not something that is reportable as an offense. It’s not something, as an HR person, that I can investigate. But if I’m the person who is turning in reports over and over again and I have no idea if the person I’m sending them to has received them, I don’t know if they’ve seen or witnessed my work at all, I feel that very acutely – and it affects how I show up. It affects my willingness and the effort that I put in the next time I am asked or told to do something for that person.”

Problematic patterns

A more extreme example is of someone experiencing repeated microaggressions at work, whether it’s in the form of off-hand comments by colleagues, or the way they’re included or excluded by their teammates when it comes to giving their input or making decisions.

“Even everyday moments of disrespect fall along identity lines. Folks who are underrepresented, often will talk about daily experiences of disrespect – microaggressions that they are experiencing. Sometimes those things add up and evolve over time.

“What you start to see if you look at workplace issues like harassment or even assault is that often those dramatic incidents weren’t a one-off thing. They were built of really small things that added up and formed a pattern and became something bigger.”

And when things do get out of hand and an ugly incident occurs, it’s perhaps easiest to point fingers at the leaders in an organization. This is fair, says Houpt, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

“Leaders model and set the standard, but I think that we underappreciated the extent to which people in informal leadership roles contribute to facets of company culture.

“When somebody is really unhappy, when it’s not a good fit, when they don’t like the way the culture is going, when they have somebody on their team that they really don’t like or really don’t like the place where they’re working, it does influence and affect everybody. You could have one person who is really unhappy and that one person could have a ripple effect.”

Two critical skills

That’s why Houpt says, the skills she most likes to share in her training are those around interpersonal communications. Learning to communicate clearly and honestly can help teams prevent small incidents from snowballing into serious problems.

There are two skills in particular that she says are key.

“Boundary-setting and apology are important leadership skills, but they’re underappreciated and undertaught.

“Boundary-setting means saying ‘no’ when you want to say ‘no’ – whether it’s ‘no’ to taking on extra responsibilities or it’s saying ‘no’ to going out with a friend when you don’t feel like it.

“Teaching about apology in particular is one of my favourite things when talking about key and core leadership skills. How do you let someone know that you earnestly feel remorse about something, even if you feel that it was something small that bothered them?

“Being able to do that effectively is a really essential leadership skill – particularly in 2021.”

High-profile apologies, whether it’s from celebrities who say the wrong thing or executives who’ve mistreated their staff, Houpt says, often leave a lot to be desired. A common pitfall is when the person apologizing focuses on their excuse. So, what makes a good apology?

“A good apology should really centre the people that were affected. What was the impact of whatever happened? I want to hear an honest expression of remorse. Apologies are about acknowledging impact.

“We have this fundamental need for integrity. Pretty much every single human being on the face of the earth thinks of themselves as a good human being. Sometimes we suffer over our own intention and prioritize that over the impact of whatever it was that we said or did.

“If we really focused on impact, we would be able to build relationships instead of break them.”

Get in touch with our team to talk about how to create a diverse, successful and productive workplace in your company or organisation. Or share your stories using the hashtag #MyAbility and tagging @getflexability on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.