As leaders, we’ve all been there — we’ve observed individual contributors and teams that just don’t get along in the workplace. The reality is that the gossiping, turf protecting, retaliating, recruiting people to take sides, planning defenses and navigating the drama is not just annoying and professionally immature, it’s costly!
According to Inc., “office workers spend more than two and a half hours per week trying to resolve conflict, which translates to $359 billion in losses for U.S. companies every year.” In some cultures, the leadership team dawns blinders, pretending that destructive conflict is healthy or normal, which isn’t the case. In other cultures, the best coaching advice offered by senior leadership is “I need you to get along… just figure it out amongst yourselves.” These leaders are kidding themselves as well. If the employees had the capabilities and tools to figure it out, they would have; there wouldn’t be a behavioral problem to begin with. Professionally mature, capable and high performing leaders recognize that allowing (enabling) destructive workplace behaviors is not only unacceptable, it’s costly and, on the bright side, rectifiable.
There are three key elements to eliminating destructive conflict.
1. Model the desired behaviors. Typically, cultures take on the personality of the leadership team. If the senior leaders are bickering and squabbling, either overtly or covertly or a combination thereof, their teams are likely to follow their lead. It is critical that the senior leaders learn, practice, and be objectively evaluated in terms of how effectively they:
- Listen vs. dig in their heels
- Approach others in a respectful vs. warlike manner
- Stick to the facts vs. get caught up in the emotions
- Search for the truth vs. become entangled in loyalties, untested beliefs and inferences
- Focus on relationship, discussion and outcome richness vs. personal agenda rightness
- Problem solve vs. take a position and win at all costs
- Maintain positive tone, word choice and body language vs. lead with negativity
The credo that high performing leaders follow and instill at all levels throughout their organizations is as follows:
- I will lead with the right, positive leadership attitude.
- I will seek out mutual gains, complementary interests and above all, win/win outcomes.
- I will be flexible in how I pursue my interests, ensuring that I “do no harm” to others.
- I will expand my thinking and consider all possibilities.
- I will think long term strategic vs. short term tactical.
- I will invest equal energy in helping to solve the other party’s problem.
- I will maintain my objectivity.
2. Instill the desired behaviors across the organization.Telling people and teams to “just figure it out” is grossly ineffective. As is the case with leaders, it is critical that all employees learn, practice, and be objectively evaluated in terms of how effectively they demonstrate the behaviors previously cited. Where most companies fail is that they send their employees to various “how to” training workshops or expect employees to sign up for a multitude of “how to” online courses (how to collaborate, how to manage difficult people, how to negotiate, how to handle conflict), but essentially, that’s where the learning both starts and stops.
Unfortunately, people retain only a small percent of what they’ve learned, and generally only the high performing employees practice what they’ve learned. Most employees return to the workplace and engage in the same destructive behaviors as they did prior to training. The first step is to pair training with in-the-workplace practice, where leaders assign real-time conflict resolution work to their employees and, of course, provide coaching to help ensure a successful outcome. As the work is assigned, the leader states the expectation that the employee must produce evidence that the conflict was addressed in an effective manner and that a win/win outcome was attained. After the practice stage comes the objective evaluation or measurement stage. Implementing a Behavioral Code of Conduct and then cross-organizationally surveying each leader’s and employee’s key customers, peers and colleagues, to gain a 360-degree view as to how the leader and employee is perceived, is crucial. Of course survey results are then integrated into each person’s performance review, which is then tied to a positive or negative consequence.
3. Stop the insanity — NOW! For conflicts that have been allowed to fester or partially or completely spiral out of control, the only solution is to quickly engage a highly capable and skilled objective third party who not only lives and breathes positive behaviors, but who also has the in-depth knowledge, capabilities and experiences to effectively facilitate individual and team interventions. This party can be internal or external to the organization, though if internal, this person will only be successful in the role if he/she is perceived in high regard by all involved entities. Oftentimes it’s more effective to engage an external third party who does not bring any perceived or real organizational baggage to the table.
In the end, analysis, defending, rationalizing and enabling negative behaviors wastes energy, diminishes productivity and throughput, sinks employee morale, adversely affects the customer, and erodes bottom line profitability. There are no logical, fact-based reasons to avoid tackling destructive conflict head-on in the workplace. There is only a lack of true leadership and a litany of poor excuses for those organizations that continue to turn a blind eye.