Conflict Prevention Series: Implementing a Code of Conduct

Human Systems Code of Conduct

Recently, I was talking with Alex, a medical student who was about to graduate and start his residency in a hospital. Alex was interested in finding out how he and his new team members could minimize unproductive conflict (conflict that does not result in positive outcomes or change), especially during COVID-19 – a time of extreme stress and chronically limited resources. I was excited to hear his question, because with some purposeful foundational work, you can eliminate a lot of unnecessary conflict, making for a more productive, efficient, and effective team.

I made three suggestions for Alex and his team: 1) adopt or create a code of conduct, 2) adopt or create a set of ethical principles, and 3) adopt or create a conflict resolution process and policy. In this article, I am going to tell you about the benefits of a code of conduct, and how it can be used effectively.

Code of conduct

One of the biggest contributors to chronic, unproductive conflict is uncivil behavior in the workplace. Uncivil behavior can include disrespect or bullying – any behavior that tends to make other people feel undervalued, invalidated, or small. When the World Health Organization published their 2010 report that helped launch hundreds of anti-bullying campaigns in schools, they also talked about the dangers of bullying in the workplace. It has only been in the past several months that uncivil and bullying behavior at work has started to get attention in research and popular media.

Your team or organization can effectively address uncivil work behavior using a code of conduct. Most people seem to generally agree on what respectful behavior looks like, and I’ve never met somebody who would argue with the principles in a standard code of conduct. Uncivil work behavior can happen despite this general understanding when the work environment is high-stress and/or there are large power differentials. Many organizations already have a code of conduct, so why doesn’t the code work? If your organization’s code of conduct hangs on a wall, but nobody ever looks at it or talks about it, it will not be effective.  The key to an effective code of conduct is not necessarily the content, but how it is implemented.

Implementing a code of conduct

To make a code of conduct work, everybody first needs to have a specific, common understanding of the code principles and what respectful behavior looks like. This means having regular, honest conversations about your own and others’ behavior as it relates to the code. These conversations should involve both positive feedback (what people are doing right) and corrective feedback (what people could do better).

For example, you could set aside five minutes in a weekly staff meeting to allow people to highlight behavior they saw in the past week that they think reflects the code of conduct, and why (positive feedback). In addition, you could establish an expectation that the facilitator of any meeting has the responsibility to identify behavior that does or does not exemplify the code of conduct, and why (corrective feedback).

If this sounds like a lot of work, it can be, especially at first. When you establish new expectations of people, especially ones that could cause discomfort or distress, there will be lots of resistance. The extent to which you can consistently and fairly address uncivil behavior according to a specific, common understanding of your code will determine how successful everybody will be in adhering to the code. The results, however, will be more than worth it: less conflict overall, better communication, more productive employees, increased retention, decreased burnout. That sounds pretty good, right?

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