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.