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Dog and a Machine: Conflict in the Workplace

I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine, and we discussed his business and its challenges. He was complaining about issues he was having with his employees. The exact words were “bloody staff” followed by other words in a similar vein which I won’t bore you with. As the conversation progressed, he shared his thoughts that all you actually need is a machine and a dog, the machine to do all the work and the dog to keep people away from the machine.

Which got me thinking that while this concept would conceivably work well for some businesses, the reality for most employers is that they need to engage with humans to get the work done.

So in my role as an employment relations mediator, workplace investigator, and as a card-carrying member of the human race, I reflected on how is it that conflicts in the workplace usually occur?

As with most things in life, there is usually no single thing you could point to as the obvious root cause. Instead, it is more likely a combination of things or events that generally lead to a breakdown and then a conflict.

It is probably necessary at this point to clarify that, in my experience, the main “thing” that breaks down is the “employment relationship”.

Now the clue as to why this might be important to an employer or employee is in the Employment Relations Act 2000 (ERA) title, which provides the legislative framework for all employer and employee relationships in New Zealand.

In other words, it sets out what you can and can’t do, or will or won’t do, from the perspective of both an employer or an employee. Similar to marriage vows but without the “till death do us part” bit.

The ERA talks about employers and employees acting in “good faith”. So what is good faith?

Employment New Zealand says that “good faith means dealing with each other honestly, openly, and without misleading each other. It requires parties to be active and constructive in establishing and maintaining a productive relationship in which they are responsive and communicative.”

From experience, this is where the relationship can start to go South, downhill, off the rails, turn to custard, go pear shape or go wrong for both employers and employees, if either party is not being open and honest, or alternatively if they are not communicating.

While there are many examples of both employees and employers not being open and honest, by far and away, the most significant contributing factor to a relationship breakdown is communication.

It shouldn’t be that hard. I hear you say, “Well, have you heard of “communication noise” which describes any barrier to the effective communication process, where the message is sent by one party but not received as intended or acted on as intended by another?

I talk, and you listen, then you talk, and I listen = communication?

On the face of it and on a simplistic level, talking and listening is how many people view effective communication.

However, within your business, the physical environment may contribute to effective communication, like in a noisy factory or engineering workshop. Or the physical wellness, an illness, or beliefs and attitudes regarding ethnicity or religion may influence what people concentrate on in any communication you provide them. The Semantic aspects occur where there is confusion over the meaning of words, which can mean that the person receiving the message is unable to understand the proper meaning of what is being said or written.

Cultural noise is a communication barrier created from the wrong explanation of another person’s behaviours. Cultural noise can be created from nonverbal communication cues, for example, posture, gesture, eye contact, space, touch. The meaning of nonverbal cues is not the same in every culture and society. Conflicting messages are part of the cultural noises in communication.

So at a quick glance, there are many ways where communication can break down and the expectations of individuals are not aligned in ways that may not be obvious or expected.

If we take an example of an employee who is from a cultural background where it is impolite to say “no” or to disagree with a manager or person in authority, then when that person is asked to do something, or alternatively asked if they have done something they may say “yes” rather than seek clarification or admit that they have not completed a task.

This inevitably leads to an issue for the party who thought they had been clear in their communication and received an affirmative response from the other party with the “yes” answer to their question.

While that was a simple example, it does happen in reality. So often, the employer or employee then leaps to a conclusion about the motivation or intentions of the other party. This is where a communication issue then quickly escalates and becomes a conflict within the workplace, often linked directly to frustration or anger and the observable behaviours of the people involved.

The organisational or workplace culture can also have an impact or influence on workplace conflict. In most places, there is an understood or accepted “way we do things around here”.

Where there is a culture or an accepted practice of seeking clarification to confirm what is meant by instruction, or an understanding that no question is a stupid question, in these organisations the instances and impact of communication noise is less obvious and the level of conflict is lower.

When investigating workplace conflict or mediating between parties, communication is generally at the centre of an issue that has then escalated out of proportion to the initial incident or interaction.

So the point here is, if you can’t rely on a dog and a machine to run your business, have a look at how you communicate with your employees, do you operate from a position of good faith, what are the potential barriers to effective communication in your workplace, and does your organisational culture foster trust and make it okay for people to communicate or raise questions to clarify what the expectations of them are?

Ask yourself, do you really listen to your employees, and are you confident that you are communicating effectively with your employees?

If you work on this aspect of your employment relationship, communication, the unseen benefits are then measured as the level of trust between an employer and employees and support the concept of good faith. Active communication from both sides creates the opportunity to put some goodwill into the relationship bank for the occasions where either party gets it wrong or a misunderstanding occurs.

The level of goodwill generally means that people will be more receptive to engage in an attempt to fix an issue before it becomes a full on conflict. Conflict in the workplace is counterproductive, time-consuming and, as a rule, usually avoidable if addressed early. Conflict is like a battlefield casualty. It consumes a lot of time and effort while not focusing on the battle or bigger picture of your business or the service you provide.

Sometimes though, you can’t see the wood for the trees in a conflict situation. If you get to that point, it is often helpful to engage an external person who can look at the conflict from a neutral perspective to help identify where things have gone wrong. From there, you can start to work out how to repair a relationship and, most importantly, prevent or reduce the likelihood of a repeat occurrence.

Written by Campbell Gourlay, Business Partner and Investigation Specialist at Three60 Consult.

If you have an issue or wish to discuss your employment relationship please contact Campbell Gourlay  or the team at Three60 Consult.


This article, and any information contained on our website is necessarily brief and general in nature, and should not be substituted for professional advice. You should always seek professional advice before taking any action in relation to the matters addressed.

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