Originally published as The Cause, Cost and Countermeasure to Conflict in an Organization in The Project Management Times
By Jon Isaacson
If you have dysfunction in your team, the cost may be higher than you want to admit but the cure may also be closer than you realize.
Frustration in the workplace, does such a thing exist? In a recent article in Forbes magazine, researchers discussed the primary sources of disgruntlement within organizations. According to the study, most employees noted that they were frustrated by personality differences and incompetence in their co-workers. This is not news to anyone who has worked in an organizational setting, one human plus one human will eventually equal conflict. The potential for conflict, as well as the intensity and duration, are compounded by the number of humans added to the equation. More people, more problems. What is interesting about the Forbes article is that upon further investigation there was an underlying source which contributed to the environment of dysfunction,
“In fact, teams having conflict had much higher levels of ambiguity in three categories of work: their team’s goals, roles, and procedures. So, while it is very human to assign personal motive and blame in times of trouble, there isn’t really anything personal about the core of workplace conflict. If you back up and look at the facts, a lack of clarity is what’s truly to blame.” (Wakeman, 2015)
The need for clarity is foundational to functionality and trust within an organization. Where there is a lack of clarity, there will be conflict. Office drama is costly, CPP Inc. performed a study in 2008 which discovered that employees in the United States spent 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflict which CPP estimated as costing over $359 billion in paid hours or the equivalent of 385 million working days (Lawler, 2010). Every business understands the need to watch the bottom line, so why are mangers unwilling to recognize the high cost of conflict? Think of it, if every employee in your office could increase engagement and efficiency by 7% by only changing one element, wouldn’t that be something a wise leader would be more intentional about?
Recognize the cost of inaction. Managers spend much of their time putting out fires, and yet our discussion to this point has demonstrated that the cure for dysfunction may be closer that you think. By understanding the cost of conflict, we recognize the value of investing in practices that will help our organization to identify and address these hot beds of discordance within our teams.
Realize the need to eliminate the blame game. When employees focus on blaming each other, too often managers are happy to allow them to target their ire upon each other rather than dealing with the core of these issues which creates a negatively recurring cycle. As noted by the author in a prior article - how leaders respond to conflicts can either reinforce cultural values that strengthen the team, or they can respond in ways that destroy morale (Isaacson, 2016).
Reduce conflict by creating clarity. If the research from Wakeman and her team as outlined in Forbes is accurate, then leaders can make a significant reduction in interpersonal conflict by being more intentional about organizational clarity. As a leader, you can alleviate friction between team members by being more clear about team goals, roles, and procedures as quoted above.
If we can sense the frustration in the organization and we can calculate the deep costs, we should be proactive in working towards long-term solutions. Often inaction is caused by an inability to identify the causes or formulate an effective plan, but now that these have been brought to light the only question left is whether we will be intentional about getting into the mix to make the magic happen. There are no shortcuts when working with interpersonal dynamics but progress is attainable through the countermeasures for the conflict we have discussed.
Wakeman, Cy (2015, June 22) The number 1 source of workplace conflict, and how to avoid it. Forbes. Retrieved fromhttp://www.forbes.com/sites/cywakeman/2015/06/22/the-1-source-of-workplace-conflict-and-how-to-avoid-it/#32a27f89126e
Lawler, Jennifer (2010, June 21) The real cost of workplace conflict. Entrepreneur. Retrieved fromhttps://www.entrepreneur.com/article/207196
Isaacson, Jon (2016, July 11) Eliminating blame in your organization. Retrieved from http://izvents.weebly.com/words/eliminating-blame-in-your-organization
You cannot have unity without trust. You cannot have trust without truth. Define, disciple and discipline around your core values.
Not that long ago I was speaking with a person in a position of leadership (PIAPOL) and we were discussing why a local team was struggling with unity. I asked this tenured PIAPOL if they understood the foundation of unity within a team. My friend looked at me quizzically and stated that they did not.
I shared that there is no unity without trust. My friend agreed, “That’s true you need trust if people are going to work together.”
We expanded our conversation by asking, where does trust come from? Similar response to my prior question so we discussed that the basis of trust is being able to rely on you to do what you say.
For example, if you tell me that you are going to sweep the floor, I should be able to trust that you are going to be able to sweep the floor. If you sweep the floor, as you said you would, I will continue to trust you and will build trust with you. If you do not sweep the floor, as you said you would, I will question whether I can trust you. There may be a good reason why you didn’t sweep the floor, but if you did not communicate with me or follow through with what you said you would do at the next time you are able to do so, I will question whether I can trust you and we will struggle to build trust.
Sweeping the floor is a simple task, but it isn’t as much about the action itself but it’s connection to what you said you would do. It’s about truth.
Many organizations want their people to get along and like each other, this is a Utopian work place, but it isn’t always achievable as there are many factors that lead to those conditions – some of which leaders, organizations and employees have control over and many which they do not. Respect on the other hand is something that is achievable, is a basic expectation that an organization can train and discipline for and can be a catalyst for successful collaboration. I don’t have to like you to respect you but I do have to respect you in order to work with you in a sustainable fashion.
Odds are if you work in a manner that is respectful, there is a strong likelihood that we can grow to like each other around that foundation. Respect comes from truth fleshing out in trust, and as previously outlined, trust comes from truth in action (more) – i.e. doing what you said you would do.
If I do what I said I would do and you do what you said you would do, we have a functional operation and the foundation for respect. If everyone is invested in being people who do what they say they will do then we can build trust and be unified around those values.
Simple things like telling the truth, doing what you say you are going to do and being organization that upholds as well as disciplines around those basic values are the foundations of developing unity. Jesus said it this way, "If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones. But if you are dishonest in little things, you won't be honest with greater responsibilities (Luke 16.10 NLT)."
Seek and hire people who do what they say they are going to do, people who are trust worthy and who tell the truth. When you have a team full of individuals who are committed to doing what they say they are going to do you have the basic ingredients for an organization that respects each other, is trustworthy and can be unified in their collaborative efforts.
Conversely, if people do not do what they say they are going to do there will be no trust between team members. If there is no trust there will be no unity. If you are struggling with unity this is a symptom of a broader problem.
Long winded lecture, now back to the conversation:
Have you looked into whether your team members trust each other? No.
Do your team members have good reasons not to trust each other? No. I don’t think so.
Do your team members do what they say they are going to do? Yes.
If that is true, what could be the reason? Like you said, they need to trust each other.
Did you hear what I said in my long winded lecture on the origins of unity being rooted in trust and trust being based on truth? Yes.
Do you understand where trust comes from? Yes.
Where does trust come from? I don’t know. I just want our team to be more unified.
Ok. Good luck.
Perhaps all of this is nonsense. Maybe the concepts of being truthful and building trust by simply doing what you say you are going to do are too lofty. A few years back we coined the phrase DYOJO among some friends, which means Do Your Own Job. We added the additional O so that it sounded like dojo or a training ground for martial arts. In this way it’s the Dojo of Doing Your Own Job, we are learning and sparring and at times fighting to be the best that we can be. Our training ground is the DYOJO.
The friend, who serves as a person in a position of leadership, I was speaking with went on to share in his next meeting that everyone needed to trust each other. “We need to have better unity, be less negative and trust each other.” While all three of these statements are true in isolation, unfortunately my friend the PIAPOL did not see how they had to be true collectively in order to have any power.
Whether we don’t’ want to admit that we have issues or we don’t want to roll our sleeves up to do the dirty work of fixing the actual underlying issues rather than chasing our tails on symptoms, often times the answers to our questions are simpler than we want to admit.
Key steps to build team unity:
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.
Thoughts on personal and professional development.
Jon Isaacson, The Intentional Restorer, is a contractor, author, and host of The DYOJO Podcast. The goal of The DYOJO is to help growth-minded restoration professionals shorten their DANG learning curve for personal and professional development. You can watch The DYOJO Podcast on YouTube on Thursdays or listen on your favorite podcast platform.