Conflict is helpful as it causes the truth of a culture to rise to the surface for an organization. When there is conflict we learn as a team whether we are still knee deep in the status quo practices that hinder teams such as playing the blame game or if our team will stay the course of progress and work together to resolve the issue(s). In an article titled Fear and Loathing in Non-Profit, Sarai Johnson makes the point about the standard operating procedures (SOP) for unhealthy teams, “When something goes wrong, a witch hunt is launched to find a scapegoat – blame is more important than accountability.” Sarai leads an organization called Lean Non Profit which obviously is working within that particular framework, but these destructive habits apply to teams of all economic structures.
In any combined effort the same challenges exist for creating a healthy culture which often include clarity, consistency and accountability. That tendency to engage in the search for a scapegoat (or playing the blame game) is the default modus operandi for unhealthy teams when dealing with conflict. When the vision is not clear, the disciplines are not consistent and the culture has not been crafted to establish internal accountability characteristics such as self-promotion, finger pointing and overall negativity will be inhibit team development.
Self-promotion is natural, as all individuals want to feel a sense of pride in what they are doing and to be recognized for it, this of itself is not a negative thing but has to be managed. If team members are consistently self adulating, this habit should serve as an indicator to those in leadership that efforts need to be made to more consistently recognize team members and develop a culture where individuals are encouraging each other. When a leader makes it a habit to praise culture enhancing practices that have been observed from individuals throughout the week, both in private as well as in public settings, the example is set for others to follow. Simple things such as starting a meeting off with sincere compliments and opening the floor for team members to brag on each other can create momentum for the culture shift.
Blame is the the dark side of self promotion. It is one thing to desire recognition, it is a more dangerous thing to achieve such by putting others down. The blame game is what happens when self-promotion and/or criticism among team members is not managed. If there is a void of recognition for employees, or there is an imbalance that is not merit related (i.e. there are favorites) or the culture is spiteful, these character viruses will thrive. In every instance where I have joined or taken the reigns of a new team I have experienced levels of self-adulation and blame, in many ways individuals have not been trained to work as a team so when a structure (healthy or not) is removed they will test the boundaries of the new system.
With regards to a culture of negativity, I can recall a company I worked for that had a “naughty board” where employees were written up publicly for mistakes they had made. I believe the concept was that this activity would deter employees from doing these things in the future, which is an short sighted view of discipline, motivation and employee development. This type of public humiliation is not effective for any generation and does not assist people to grasp the vision or embrace their role in the development of the team. A gold star board is similarly ineffective as it is trite, but there is value in positively promoting clear values and publicly recognizing those who are moving the vision forward. Building a culture that is clear, consistent and accountable does not mean that there is no conflict or that discipline is ignored, it just means that these situations and practices are guided by the vision of the organization.
Going back to where we started, author, speaker and host of the No Nonsense Nonprofit Podcast, Sarai Johnson notes, “Without intentional and purposeful work, culture becomes whatever it will be – for better or worse – and it is dependent on the personalities at hand when it starts.” From Sarai’s experience with nonprofits she sees that these organizations, “Don’t typically see it fit to invest in cultures.” Yet this isn’t exclusive to nonprofits as many for-profit organizations are equally lethargic in their approach to this aspect of development. The blame game is one that is often started from the top down and for an organization to be accountable the values have to be practiced by all. Regardless of your position within the organization you can effect positive change by setting an example of taking ownership for mistakes and working to collaborate with the team to resolve issues rather than join the witch hunt. Culture is not a unicorn, it is the result of intentional efforts.
If you have a team, especially a smaller team, there are no secrets – there are only those issues that you take leadership over and discuss with a purpose and those issues that you allow to direct their own lives.
In most offices the walls are paper thin (if you still have walls) and the issues are being discussed like ping pong balls bouncing from surface to surface. As a leader you can be observe from your perch and imagine that you are the referee keeping the game within its imaginary bounds or you can grab a paddle and lead the discussion.
There is safety on the sidelines, but it is only imagined, as those ping pong balls can cause real damages to teams and culture if they are not addressed. Leaders on the sidelines are not leaders, they are observers. Leaders who engage with their paddles will win some and will lose some, but by being present they can reduce negative impacts and even intercede in additional balls being added to the natural chaos of business life. There is no perfect leadership but there is definitely detrimental action/inaction by leaders.
The ping pong balls are flying, its time to paddle up.
Many leaders would proudly boast of their advanced degree received from the Institute of Tired Leadership Open Door-ism. At the suggestion that said leaders do not engage their employees or that they dismiss their team member’s input or feedback, said leaders would pound their fists in outrage and point to the certificate from the ITLOD. Unfortunately for leaders, the open door policy does involves more than leaving your door partially open during business hours and consequently there is more than one way to dismiss another person’s input or feedback, even if you graduated with honors.
Dismissal upon the transmission of input.
The door was open. The employee knocked, confirmed and ventured through (not as open as open would indicate). The employee begins to engage with the leader and the leader A) engages with listening, body language and words or B) dismisses the feedback by the same gestures. Input from employees may not come at times that are of convenience to the receiving party but are always of some level of importance to the transmitting party.
Dismissal following the transmission of input.
The door was open. The employee shared their feedback. The leader made it through the conversation and communicated that the information was received with importance, what will the leader do to follow up with the input received from the team? The leader A) conducts a proper investigation into the information preferred to determine appropriate action or B) dismiss the input by doing nothing to follow up on the feedback received. Employees do not expect leaders to be omniscient, to know everything that is going on, but they do expect leaders to engage when a negative action is brought to the attention of leadership (more on this HERE).
Dismissal of the confirmation of input.
What happens when the leader listens, the leader investigates and then the leader confirms the input received by their employee? If an appropriate response or action is warranted, the test of leadership is now on display – what will the informed leader do? Leaders should not want themselves to be ignorant of issues, this is one of the great values of a truly open door, that employees are willing to share earnest concerns with leadership so that the team can address issues and maintain health should be celebrated. An ignorant leader who becomes informed and yet refuses action displays impotence. Why should employees care enough to make positive changes when leadership has demonstrated that it is not valued by them?
Leadership is an extension of customer service within your organization. When leaders demonstrate care and service to their employees they perform several key functions including engaging their employees, encouraging positive action and demonstrating how the organization treats people. A healthy organizational culture is an extension of the positive example of leaders who are engaged in the processes of the team and the activities of employees who reinforce those values to each other as well as their customers.
Earnest input and feedback from team members at every layer within the organization is critical to progress and growth. A company with no input from team members either has employees that do not care or employees who have concluded from the actions (dismissal) of management that leadership does not care.
How leaders respond to conflicts can either reinforce cultural values that strengthen the team or they can respond in ways that destroy morale.
In organizational cultures everyone loves playing The Blame Game and bosses are particularly fond of the follow up game, Crap Rolls Downhill. Both are games are trademarked but neither has any clearly defined rules or pre-determined outcomes. The game is often initiated by conflict and the fantastical response of leadership to avoid responsibility for resolution.
Play number one is to assign.
This phase of the game is also so joyously referred to as The Witch Hunt. The dice are shaken, rolled and a conflict of sorts ensues as the numbers clamber upon the playing surface. Whether the inquisition is over employee issues, customer service, payments, product failures or the like, bosses will rally the wagons, feigning a quick and concerned response. As the dust settles on the parade of indignation the supervisory fingers are drawn from their holsters with an insatiable thirst for flesh.
Assignment of blame is seen by many as a gold star in the managerial belt. If someone can be blamed then we can all conclude that The Witch Hunt was successful. All that a conflict needs in order to be resolved is for some party to be assigned the blame. Shake the dust from our hands and the sweat from our brows, our job is d-o-n-e.
Play number two is to assume.
When blame cannot be immediately assumed and The Witch Hunt cannot be satisfied, the participants of the game have to make a choice whether they will draw upon the Actually-Investigate-An-Issue card or select from the much thicker Deck of Assumptions. The scientific process is only for nerds, right? Why would any self-respecting manager, who’s time is worth more than pure San Francisco gold, dip their manicured fingers into the Mire of Dispute Discernment?
Most management practitioners believe they have achieved their success by trusting their trustworthy gut, so why would conflict resolution be any different? The savvy boss already knows who is guilty, they don’t need crime scene analysis, jury review or the Supreme Court to tell them what they already assume is correct.
Play number three is to abdicate.
If the dice aren’t rolling correctly and assigning blame nor assumptions are advancing the player through business Candyland, the next option is to pull the wild card that enables a manager to abdicate responsibility. In these scenarios of unresolved conflicts a boss must draw upon prior experience to climb a ladder to boost themselves above the strife or quickly chute down and away from the controversy. If there is a report that says issues will resolve themselves then it must be right and it should be believed.
The final alternative play that no one wants to talk about, like it’s some sort of cheat code that no one understands is to eliminate.
Elimination of the conflict requires identification of the cause. Why are we in the negative situation that we find ourselves confronted with? What root sources do we need to address in order to ensure that we do not replicate the negative effects? Conflicts are continuous, they can happen at any moment for various reasons and they create an opportunity for growth within the organization. Unfortunately conflicts require leaders to get their hands dirty fixing people issues and process malfunctions but they also remind leaders to be hands on with people and processes.
Elimination (Secret Code) Instructions:
Crap hits the fan.
Find the crap.
Get the crap out of the system.
Get the crap into a toilet.
Flush the crap as soon as possible.
Don’t pretend the crap doesn’t exist.
Don’t smear the crap all around the office.
Don’t kid yourself that the crap will take care of itself.
Jon Isaacson. Green belt in the puzzle art of business. Helping people clarify their vision, optimize productivity & follow through w/ creative solutions #MTWSL
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