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.
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Jon Isaacson has a monthly feature column with Restoration & Remediation (R&R) Magazine titled The Intentional Restorer