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How do you resolve conflict in a toxic culture?





Conflict is around us all, every day, in just about every decision we make, in many of the conversations we have. Most conflicts are manageable and even resolvable one way or another.


Some areas of conflict though, are non-negotiable. This to my mind would include issues such as sexual harassment, bullying and abuse – things that we know are inherently wrong. It wouldn’t be appropriate to even have a starting position on these matters in terms of a negotiation. This is the problem that McDonald’s faces this week after a number of former employees have gone on record about the toxic culture that exists within the operational side of its restaurants.


A lot has been made of the nature of the McDonald’s franchise network – where third parties operate the restaurants against a stringent set of rules and guidelines. It has served them for many years delivering a strong brand identity through uniformity in materials and process – I’ve had a few Big Macs in my time in the UK, Sydney and Singapore and you just can’t tell the difference – incredible!


This success is the product of the KPI approach ‘what gets measured gets done’, where it is possible to lay down specifics on size, shape, time etc. These can be communicated from one party to another as part of a process. When we start talking about more intangible things such as how we look, talk and interact with others, it gets a lot trickier - therein lies McDonald’s problem.


They already have a raft of policies and training courses in place, but how do you make these stick and how to do you get the managers in the franchises to interpret them appropriately?


McDonald’s could impose their will to stop the problems – telling the franchises exactly what to do, and what the price of failure is. This however can cause two potential problems; firstly, as discussed above it’s more tricky to be specific on behavioural issues, secondly, initiatives that are imposed can potentially lack the perceived motivation and credibility in the eyes of those living with the problems.


The answer may be to stop the problems before they even start, rather than relying upon people to be confident enough to call out bad behaviour, once it’s already occurred.


Imposing your will with punitive action for non-compliance is a sanction or a threat – not many of us like being told what to do. Rather than making this the central message, this is more the alternative should other measures fail.


McDonald’s could use the commitment and consistency principle – one of the sphere’s of Influence* as their central theme. Co-collaboration - working out a behavioural framework in conjunction with the franchisees could provide a number of benefits:


If the franchisees feel involved in the development of the process, they have skin in the game – they are much more likely to proactively subscribe to these newly developed set of values, potentially limiting issues before they even occur – addressing the difficulty of the specificity of actions after the event has happened.


If the managers buy into these new measures, these will be communicated with integrity to the workforce. This in turn fosters the belief that individuals will be listened to and action will be taken, making individuals more likely to call out problems rather than just accepting them.


Lastly, if the franchisees buy into this concept, it means that they are likely to be flexible and amenable to similar or related changes in the future, should they be needed.


With conflict, negotiation may not always be appropriate, but imposing your will may also have consequences. Consider all the options available, they’re not necessarily mutually exclusive – meal deals available on request!


Sam Macbeth, 21st July 2023



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