Here’s why neutrality is a problem
For anyone involved in workplace tension trying to remain neutral is a problematic ideal. It’s like trying to balance on that proverbial fence – eventually you fall off or you get splinters. One particular dynamic stands out in my mind where an employee, with tears rolling down her face said to me “I just tried to stay independent”. In fact, her “independence” had led to her to being viewed as the collaborating bystander by both warring colleagues as their tensions spiralled unabated. Her neutrality was judged as indifference and compounded “the pain” her colleagues were “suffering”.
Another case of misguided neutrality is that of missed opportunities. Where the manager fears not being seen as “neutral” by their disputing subordinates and therefore misses golden opportunities to change the course of conflict. Their actions or non-action can actively or passively align them with direct parties to the conflict. We see this all the time like when a manager does not intervene regarding the tone of an email they are copied into. Neutrality can be a destructive idea. People managers should be getting involved and they should be making the “hard call”. After all, “You can't be neutral on a moving train.”
HR professionals constantly walk the tightrope of perception of independence or neutrality, and are frequently criticised for it. HR should not be aiming for a reputation as “Switzerland”, we all know how history has judged that reputation. HR’s involvement by its very nature requires participation. Involvement requires opinion and taking action. As a profession HR’s misguided ideal of “neutrality” requires re-working to allow for realistic expectations which set practitioners, and those they are seeking to support, up for success. Perhaps we will write a blog about it! For now feel free to consider this article.
Pull out those splinters! Remove misguided neutrality
For anyone involved in workplace tension trying to remain neutral is not what we should be aiming for. It’s just not practical and even more importantly it’s rarely effective. In the words of Dante Alighieri, the great Italian poet “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” Whilst a workplace conflict may not be a great moral crisis, the sentiment remains the same. When things get tricky we need colleagues and people managers to be active, play a role and get involved. If people need tweezers to remove the splinters then they are likely a large part of the problem!
If faced with workplace conflict the response you take and the role you play should be considered and thoughtful. Sometimes that will mean supporting one side by taking the other offline to share your observations, sometimes that will mean calling out poor behaviour in a respectful way, sometimes that will mean making a decision and communicating it even if the outcomes is not perceived as favourable to one to all. There are just so many options limited only by your creativity and remember... there is always a plan!