Positive Peace in the Workplace

Have you ever considered what peace actually means? The word peace seems to evoke different meanings from different people. Take the workplace as an example. For some managers, peace in the workplace means the absence of conflict. No one is arguing or showing tempers. No fighting or overt violence occurs. Sexual harassment or other impermissible conduct is absent.  The company is in legal compliance with workplace laws. Therefore, the company is peaceful.  To me, this is depressing.

-1For others, however, peace in the workplace means that employees feel respected, are cooperative with one another, are enthusiastic about what they do, and have a sense of teamwork. They love coming to work and value their friendships. I get excited about this kind of peace.

If peace means the absence of conflict, then both concepts of peace are accurate. But clearly they are not the same. One way of distinguishing types of peace is to consider the idea of negative peace versus positive peace. Negative peace is generally defined as the absence of overt conflict or violence. A ceasefire in Bosnia is negative peace. In the corporate setting, a negative peace may exist when all expressions of disagreement or conflict are suppressed. Employees put on their “happy” faces, pretend to get along, and avoid raising uncomfortable or difficult subjects for fear of angering the boss. The absence of conflict or violence does not lead to a positively defined condition. Hence, peace is characterized as negative.

Positive peace, on the other hand, may parallel the ancient concept of shalom. Every person is valued and feels valued. There is a right relationship between each member of the work group.  Not only is conflict absent, but an esprit d’corps seems to exist. People are motivated by each other and strive for excellence. A balanced blend of personal, internal competition (How can I improve?) and external cooperation (How can I help the other person do better?) predominates. People are excited about their work. They feel privileged that someone is paying them for what they do.

Most workers would prefer to have positive peace around them. Yet most work environments are satisfied with negative peace. For example, I asked a company president if her company had a peaceful environment. She indignantly said yes and challenged my implication that her company’s environment was hostile. Of course, my question was purposefully unfair because I did not distinguish between positive and negative peace. I then asked her if the peace within her company was positive or negative. She was nonplussed by the question. When I explained the difference, she thought for a moment. To her credit, she admitted that her company probably maintained a negative peace.

Why do most companies have negative peace? First, companies seek an interpersonal goal of absence of conflict. Absence of conflict is comfortable because anxiety is reduced and a sense of control prevails. After all, overt conflict means anger, loud words, and imminent loss of emotional and possibly physical control. One of our dominant cultural norms dictates lack of emotion, rationality, control, and repression of emotion so as not to be frightened with potential violence. Companies also seek a kind of corporate homeostasis or status quo. Maintaining status quo requires less effort, less thinking, less resources, and less creativity. Any strategy reducing difficult objectives appeals to many over-worked managers.

Third, companies focus on the financial bottom line or the stock price. The payoffs from the efforts required for a positive peace are not easily related to the current value of stock options.  Thus, the minimum socially and legally required effort to maintain peace becomes the standard human resources objective.

Imagine, however, how positive peace might operate on a company’s stock value. Employees would be easy to recruit because the company holds a reputation as good place to work.  Retention would not be as difficult. When restless employees compare their environment to other opportunities, positive peace wins. Since most companies have negative peace, the competition for retention favors the few who foster positive peace. Positive peace increases morale, reduces absenteeism, increases creativity, and increases productivity.  People are, to put it simply, happier.

So why don’t companies work towards positive peace? Probably for the same reasons most companies are average financial performers: unawareness, apathy, insufficient human and financial resources, and lack of commitment. Those companies that do concentrate on positive peace find that their investment is rewarded by huge multiples in terms of recruiting, retention, productivity, and valuation in the marketplace. In other words, wealth is proportional to positive peace.

Douglas E. Noll, Lawyer to Peacemaker

Creator of Negotiation Mastery for the Legal Pro

California Lawyer Magazine, California Attorney of the Year 2012

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