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Book in review: Hot conflicts in the Workplace

| Text: Björn Lindahl

After the Cold War ended, a series of conflicts and civil wars broke out. Although none of them threatened the world order, they were bloody and claimed many victims. Norwegian working life researchers Bjørg Aase Sørensen and Asbjørn Grimsmo see a similar trend developing on today’s labour market in which hierarchical structures have been replaced by teamwork and substantially streamlined organisations.

Varme og kalde konflikterWhen a manager disappears from the scene and groups are forced to fend for themselves, previously hidden conflicts can easily be dragged to the surface. It creates a situation that neither the unions nor the human resources manager is equipped to deal with. 

During the industrial revolution in Sweden, unions and employers developed different sets of rules for dealing with the battle about wages and working conditions. Workplace conflicts can be heated, but union representatives and employers do not question each other’s personal integrity. This is why these conflicts are referred to as ‘cold’. 

‘Hot’ conflicts arise between employees and also between different levels in the same company. They arise because employees in flat structures have a greater propensity to compete with each other, often making the situation very personal and therefore more dangerous.Although there is a lot of talk about exhaustion and collaboration difficulties in these situations, both employees and the company are interested in covering up what has gone on.

 Because of this, it is not so easy to find evidence in the statistics of what has actually happened. In Sweden, only 3% of workrelated illnesses are classified as ‘psychosocial’. It is suspected that the high level of absenteeism due to illness can be attributed to factors hitherto undefined. 

In their book ‘Varme og kalde konflikter i det nye arbeidslivet’ [‘Hot and cold conflicts in modern working life’], Bjørg Aase Sørensen and Asbjørn Grimsmo review the body of research concerning this type of conflict.

 They also put forward a model for how conflicts in the workplace can be resolved. 

They themselves have experienced cases where they have been called in to act as independent arbitrators by organisations plagued by conflicts that have left those involved exhausted. 

“The reason why we should focus on the lack of ability to handle conflict is both simple and dramatic: Being involved in a poorly managed conflict leaves deep scars. It is accepted that those caught up in long and bitter conflicts take considerable amounts of time to recover. According to one of the leading researchers into workplace bullying, the average length of a conflict in Norway is approximately three years” write the authors.

They address an argument that quickly presents itself: Haven’t there always been these types of conflict in the workplace? Haven’t there always been people that do not fit into an organisation?

Of course, but the authors argue that it is much easier for conflicts to emerge in the new organisational models. It isn’t just a case of a school class becoming anarchic when their ordinary teacher disappears. It’s about the flat structures that do not work as first intended. 

Internally, groups may have different understandings of what the objectives of their action are or how those objectives are to be achieved. Communication between those that work on the front line and those that have support functions can be poor.With the emergence of IT, it has become impossible to monitor production chains. Companies can impose unreasonable requirements on their employees, which means that they can only achieve their own objectives by trampling on their colleagues. 

The authors do not want to return to a more authoritarian form of working life.That era has gone. In actual fact, they criticise the fact that the change in working life has stopped on a level where too many of the negative aspects of the organisational structures and perceptions of people in industrial society have been given free reign: 

“It’s possible to view what has happened as an insufficient and false delegation to individuals and groups. Jobs and responsibility have been delegated at a furious pace, not least within the public sector. But where can we find groups, teams and individuals that have had the opportunity to be involved where they are really up to the tasks placed before them?" write the authors

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