Contrary to what you might think, interpersonal tension at work is a fact of life. The top-performing teams aren’t those with no conflict; they are those that know how to effectively address it and the pitfalls to avoid.
A healthy work environment has interpersonal conflicts, but it also provides psychological safety that endures despite the conflicts.
In my practice, I am asked to unravel tensions that, far from building synergy on a team, disrupt the interpersonal balance. A recent case (let’s call the people involved Simon and Patrice) is a perfect example.
On this particular team, a number of people’s anger was growing with their new colleague Patrice. One of them, Simon, felt that Patrice was cutting corners and that his work wasn’t up to standards. Plus, the time Patrice saved by taking shortcuts meant that he could serve more clients in a day, something his bosses appreciated. They even started to ask Simon and others to take on more, using Patrice as an example. His colleagues were frustrated and started criticizing him behind his back, saying he always wanted to look good, that he did as he pleased, that he was haphazard…
When Simon tried to tell Patrice he should pay more attention to details to avoid mistakes, Patrice replied that he had 20 years of experience and that he knew what he was doing. Rolling his eyes, Simon snapped back “sure, 20 years of experience messing things up!” which ratcheted up tensions on the team.
How do you avoid this type of situation?
The advantages of going to the balcony
When we are overwhelmed with emotion, it can be difficult to see all the causes – and therefore the potential solutions – of the conflict we are engaged in. We can also surprise ourselves by saying things that add fuel to the fire rather than putting it out. That’s human nature: when we are seething inside, our mouths tend to move faster than our brains. How can we do this differently? By heading up to the balcony!
Negotiation expert William Ury suggests imagining that your discussion with someone is taking place on a stage in a theatre. By taking part of your mind to the balcony rather than leaving it on the stage, your perspective changes: from up top, you can see things you didn’t see before.
With elevation also comes greater mental and emotional detachment that lets you stay calm and centred on what is most constructive. What is the goal of the discussion? Do I just want to vent, or do I want to improve customer satisfaction and teamwork?
In the heat of the action, taking a moment to head up to the balcony will help you avoid saying something you could regret and will help you think about the most productive form the discussion could take. It also lets you consider the other causes of the conflict, which can be difficult to see from up close.
The causes that don’t occur to us
In our example, Simon attributed the conflict to a first set of causes, specifically those related to the person and his interactions with him: Patrice was self-centred and sloppy, didn’t listen to feedback, etc. While this is the sort of cause we often think of, there are others worth exploring to break the impasse.
Organizational causes include factors related to the organization’s structure and operations. This second type of cause can explain tensions independent of the personalities of the people involved in the conflict. Are roles and responsibilities clear? Are rules, policies and procedures defined, known and applied? Does everyone agree with the organization’s mission and vision to accomplish it?
In the example of Simon, it would have been a good idea to consider whether standards for quality are explicitly defined and conveyed to everyone. Simon and Patrice may have different expectations on that front and, without a clear organizational direction, apply a different level of rigour. A discussion on the topic would reduce tensions and increase harmony on the team.
History is a third type of cause of interpersonal tensions. Events in the life of a team or an organization can leave their mark or result in accumulated frustration: a change or a decision that wasn’t understood, a colleague’s action that has never been digested, or nostalgia for the management style of a boss who has left the organization.
For Patrice, who transferred from another department, delays in processing requests had resulted in the loss of major clients a few years earlier. Colleagues he cared about also lost their jobs to budget cuts. Patrice remembered his boss’s comment at the time: “we distinguished ourselves for our speed of execution.”
Teasing out this history during a discussion in which there is a sincere effort to understand what would explain Patrice’s behaviour would make it possible to acknowledge and respect the impact of events and work together to find the best way to turn the page.
A valuable approach for yourself and others
Whether you are an actor in a conflict or a third party trying to help colleagues break an impasse, a change of perspective and exploring the three types of causes help address conflict in a way that is not threatening to those involved.
The sense of psychological safety this creates gets people to trust that their organization and colleagues care about their well-being and professional success. These are values that go a long way to standing out on the labour market.
There are plenty of parallels between organizations and the individuals who make them up. An organization is more than just a group of people; it is a living entity, with its own personality, mentality and challenges.
Studying individual human behaviour can give us a better understanding at the organizational level. Let’s take the story of Charles, who has gone to see the doctor.
When someone is sick…
Charles is in shock at what the doctor has said. He is at a loss for words and doesn’t know how to handle the news.
The news is a kick in the stomach. Tears well up in Charles’ eyes. Cancer? How is that possible?
He had been having stomach pain for a few months. Initially he thought it was because of the anti-inflammatories he was taking for his back. It was a common side effect, wasn’t it? It couldn’t be that serious…
But the pain persisted.
Was it his diet? Charles started keeping a daily food journal, even eliminating certain foods from his diet to see what the impact would be. Still the pain persisted.
Could it be stress? Charles tried to better manage his stress, but to no avail. The only constant was the pain.
When Charles finally went to see the doctor, the doctor asked a lot of questions about his pain, symptoms and what he had tried before making a diagnosis.
After thinking it over for a few days, Charles asked to undergo thorough testing before getting a second opinion. He figured that even though the statistics point in one direction, the real causes of a problem and possible solutions can be different depending on the person.
This seems perfectly logical when it comes to your health. But what about the health of the workplace?
When an organization is sick…
If there is a problem in an organization, data can provide signposts to look for answers. But just as with individuals, data should never be the only information on which to base decision making.
Quite often, when symptoms of dysfunction appear in an organization (or on a work team), they are diffuse, vague and unclear – just like Charles’ stomach pain. It is obvious that something is wrong, but it is hard to pinpoint what should be done to improve the situation.
We hope it will pass. We tell ourselves it is just a matter of circumstance, that it is not that serious. We cross our fingers and hope the problem goes away. Unfortunately, it rarely does: once symptoms are observable, the problem is generally entrenched.
Making an accurate diagnosis
To find the best solutions, we need to take the time to base decisions on a solid foundation. Who better to give us the facts on an organization’s health than the people who work in it every day? Individuals who make up workplaces should also be a priority in developing strategies, because it is their motivation and engagement that are at stake.
A good diagnosis measures the facts and reality by being as objective as possible. This is essential in any effort to generate positive, lasting change.
This diagnostic analysis can take a variety of forms: a survey of all personnel, an investigation into the work climate on the team, the global analysis of your HR data or any other objective method for data gathering. Measuring your unique organizational reality is the only way to identify the interventions likely to be most successful.
The importance of measuring your organizational reality
Certain things can lead to hasty decisions: enthusiasm for a new, innovative approach, the urgency of action, the seriousness of the situation, discouragement, the feeling of having tried everything to no avail…
Even with good intentions, even if the theories, statistics or scientific studies support your effort – and even if the entire world is telling you to do it – the only way to ensure your strategy is the right one is to develop it from the unique reality of your organization and the people who make it up. And you won’t find the description of your reality in a book.
In our economic environment, performance has become the main driver of business success. In an economy weakened by continued labour shortages, mobilizing people in organizations is one of the most powerful tools for growth. This is why it is important to understand mobilization and to harness it to its full potential.
“Ultimately, mobilization creates organizations that perform better and that are better able to act on their environment, to create meaning and to have a lasting, positive impact.”
Companies with strong mobilization have synergy that makes them more valued and attractive so that employees are absent less and remain loyal longer.
This results in customer satisfaction, greater productivity and higher profitability.
First and foremost, mobilizing requires understanding the nature of mobilization and its components. You also need a basis of comparison, an index to evaluate a company’s situation and identify levers for improvement. There are two simple choices for businesses that want to improve their performance:
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More than a survey, the OMI is a powerful management tool that enables decision making and targeted action.
The OMI delivers five key benefits:
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