Why Your Team Members Are Always in Conflict
Conflict is a virus. It can reduce a synergistic workplace into a state of anarchy. Fingers are pointed, responsibility is avoided, and gridlock brings progress to a standstill. While it’s impossible to prevent conflict from happening in the workplace, it is possible to breed a culture that resists it, and to design processes that can contain it.
Why does conflict happen, and what can management do about it?
1. Nobody Spotted the Warning Signs
Very rarely do conflicts erupt out of nowhere. Instead, they tend to start small and escalate. Unfortunately, small conflicts tend to go unnoticed or ignored, and this is really the root of the problem. Once a conflict reaches the stage of becoming a distraction, it is far more difficult to bring to a halt.
Spotting conflicts before they erupt requires a culture of empathy. While it’s impossible for every employee to put themselves in the shoes of everybody else, it’s important to encourage this kind of thinking. Just as importantly, you need to encourage people to speak up about any concerns they may have, long before they escalate.
Some warning signs include:
- Employees who habitually avoid one another
- Situations where one employee is taking on more work than others
- Discussion of salary in the workplace
- Arbitrary hierarchies and limitations on autonomy
- Employees who are “singled out”
- Employees who often find themselves “out of the loop”
- Excessive or insufficient delegation
The key is to look for situations that could create feelings of animosity, unfairness, and power imbalance, and to make every effort you can to correct the situation before those feelings make themselves known.
2. A Culture of Blame
While there are certainly circumstances where disciplinary action makes sense, placing blame is never the right response.
To clarify, disciplinary actions aren’t a way to get “revenge” on “bad” employees. They are merely incentives meant to discourage negative behaviors.
Blame, on the other hand, is entirely different. Placing blame is just a way to avoid solving the problems that led up to a mistake. Solutions to problems don’t come from identifying which people were to blame. Solutions come from finding faulty processes and then remedying them.
A culture of blame is often a much bigger problem than any of the individual problems that your employees are trying to blame each other for. Such a counter-productive culture is often the result of two foundational issues:
- The example set by management
- The incentives in place
Managers who want a cohesive work environment must avoid placing blame themselves. Nothing works faster to erode the foundations for synergy.
Meanwhile, poorly planned incentives, especially ones that are built around the concept of blame, can lead to entrenched corrosion of the “team-player” mentality. When employees or teams feel that they can increase their chances of earning a bonus, or of avoiding disciplinary action, by placing blame on others, they will do it, regardless of their personal beliefs.
3. Taking Responsibility
One of the fastest ways to diffuse conflict is to simply take responsibility yourself.
Common sense might suggest that this kind of behavior will make you, as a manager, look incompetent. Nothing could be further from the truth. Managers who take responsibility for the actions of their teams tend to be far more respected. Managers like these also tend to remedy situations more rapidly, and they are often taken more seriously as change-agents.
Taking responsibility also sets an important example and encourages workforce security. Employees who feel comfortable taking responsibility for mistakes or errors will also feel more empowered to make their own decisions and to modify their own behavior when needed.
4. The Missing Rulebook
Conflicts often happen because two people are using their own internal rule books or “emotional balance sheets.” When two people don’t agree on the rules, it’s hard for them to agree on anything.
While policies shouldn’t get overzealous or arbitrary, it’s important to have an “official” rule book to turn to when disagreements rear their ugly head. It’s important to declare the rules and go over them whenever you put a team together, so that everybody is informed and in agreement.
Tread lightly with policies, however. Too much depth will cause the policies to become so numerous and hard to remember that they lose their effectiveness. Instead of serving as a common ground, they become a distraction. Similarly, broad or excessively simple rulebooks leave too much room for interpretation, and can become a source of semantic disagreements.
Precisely how you approach rules, and the incentives associated with them, will depend on the type of project you are working on, as well as your industry. Labor and mass production, for example, tend to be more successful with clear incentives and strict rule enforcement. Creative projects, on the other hand, often do better with broad guidelines.
5. Things Got Political
Political breakdowns in the workplace can be incredibly problematic and are one of the biggest sources of conflict. When politics get in the way of actual work, you know you have a problem.
One of the biggest factors at play here is a lack of understanding about who is in charge of what. When roles and responsibilities aren’t clearly defined, workers feel free to define them on their own, and they will rarely do so in ways that are mutually agreed upon.
I’m not arguing against the concept of self-organizing teams. Far from it, actually. This tenet of Agile management can be very useful in the creative industries, and it can be a useful way to keep bureaucracy to a minimum. As we all know, bureaucracy can also become a huge source of political conflicts in the workplace.
What I am arguing for is an agreed upon system. If teams are self-organizing, that’s fine, but that’s no excuse to avoid defining roles and responsibilities clearly. (Anybody who’s actually used Agile methods should know this.)
The second factor, which we’ve already touched on, is the necessity to keep bureaucracy to a minimum. Hierarchies can leave people feeling entitled to pass responsibility for tasks further up or down the corporate ladder, and often become a source of procrastination and waste. When strict hierarchies are necessary, it’s especially important to define responsibilities clearly, and to avoid putting too much pressure on any single link in the chain.
Remember, conflict is often a symptom of underlying problems. Placing blame and shifting responsibility does nothing to resolve such problems. Progress requires an understanding of the underlying processes at fault, an eye for the warning signs, agreed upon rules, and an ability to tackle political breakdowns. Don’t let conflict put your projects in gridlock.