Getting the best of both worlds
Much of our time is spent with colleagues at work, and so it would seem sensible to create a harmonious environment with minimal conflict. Certainly there are times to be courteous, like offering colleagues the last remaining biscuit in a meeting and allowing it to be swiped, even if you were staring at the delicious morsel for the previous 20 minutes. The conflict just isn’t worth it
unless it’s a Jaffa cake or a bourbon. But at other times, organisational conflict is hugely beneficial and necessary for driving change, creativity and high performance (Robbins & Judge 2012).
The chances are that organisational conflict is going to become increasingly prevalent in 2017; flatter organisational hierarchies, surprising global political outcomes and a shift towards free-market and deregulated business practices have intensified the pressure on organisations to perform in a competitive global arena (Benton and Sommers 2016). The trick will be for organisations to foster a positive, biscuit sharing work environment whilst enabling constructive challenge.
In practice, this means a high quality exchange of information without degeneration into personal attacks. This shouldn’t be difficult. After all, we’re mature adults capable of keeping emotions and bias in check… aren’t we? I’ll leave that as a rhetorical question whilst dangling this estimated cost of conflict for the UK – 370 million working days per annum (Saundry, 2014). Ouch.
Enabling constructive challenge in teams
There are a swathe of internal and external factors that contribute to conflict. The following four suggestions tackle individual and team sources of conflict, such as:
- resource allocation (resolving competing needs for resources)
- personality differences and relationship styles
- goal clarification (sorting out the grey areas in job descriptions and team responsibilities).
1. Help employees to get to know each other
It’s so much easier to give feedback to colleagues when there is a personal connection. If people in your organisations aren’t getting much beyond the ‘how was your weekend?’ question in passing conversation, it might be useful to:
- run more social events
- provide team-based volunteer opportunities for a nominated charity
- upload photos and one liner intros for employees on the internal directory
- include team introductions for new joiners as part of the induction (this is a demand on time but the benefits of establishing these relationships pay-off in the long term)
- introduce activities to typical business meetings that give individuals the chance to build relationships. For example, ‘tell me something that’s not on your LinkedIN profile?’ is a great ice breaker question for team training events or workshops. The range of personal interests and hobbies never fails to intrigue those around the table, just reassure people that it doesn’t have to be a jaw-dropping revelation; things like a favourite holiday destination or author will suffice.
2. Use structured tools to explore relationship styles in teams
Personality psychometrics, such as Dimensions, MBTI, the Insights Discovery Profile and DISC can be used to give individuals structured insights as to their own personality preferences and how those differ or match up with colleagues. The Thomas Kilman Instrument (TKI) specifically identifies styles of behaviour used in conflict. The outputs from personality psychometrics trigger many enlightening moments for relationship management and also highlight broader team strengths or capability gaps that need to be addressed.
I particularly enjoy witnessing pennies drop when individuals realise a ‘difficult’ colleague has not been an intentional pain in the proverbial backside. For example, if one team member has a preference for implementing and completing tasks but works often with an innovator, who tends to think up various solutions without necessarily getting round to the doing, there are likely to be tensions. The conscious reflection on personality types can quickly clear up destructive mis-understandings.
3. Enable objective, in-the-moment feedback between colleagues
High quality exchange of feedback is rare between colleagues. Research by Office Vibe illustrates that 82% of employees appreciate feedback, whether it’s positive or negative and yet, 62% don’t receive enough of it. They want more feedback from their colleagues (although whether the feedback is taken on board is another question!).
- Provide feedback guidelines as part of your performance management process to encourage in-the-moment, objective feedback
- Utilise company behaviours, job descriptions or team goals as a framework to make feedback objective (of course, this requires up-to-date job descriptions and a robust behavioural competency framework to be in place)
- Encourage individuals to share their development areas with colleagues to seek targeted feedback
- 360 feedback programmes can be a great way to build confidence and capability for inter-colleague feedback. Questions should be designed according to your company’s behavioural framework to make it both relevant and positioned in the context of improving performance at work.
By the time performance appraisals come round, it should be a case of summing up feedback throughout the year. Online tools can really help to make this a reality by providing notifications, deadlines and a convenient place for storing feedback. Like going to the gym, milestones and ease of access are great influencers of successful outcomes.
4. It doesn’t matter if it’s black or white (just not grey)
When there is confusion as to which individual or team is responsible for any given task or outcome, bucks will be passed and fingers will be pointed. So make sure there are no grey areas lurking in job descriptions. Make objectives and responsibilities black and white, particularly after mergers or restructures.
For example, in retail organisations, team relations are more positive when responsibilities of shop staff and central teams are made clear i.e. clarifying who does what for customer complaints, shop window displays, organising the store layout and so on. In fact, just the label of the team can help dictate their purpose. A pharmacy chain re-labelled their ‘Head Office’ to ‘Support Office’ to clarify that central teams should be focussed on supporting stores to serve customers, and not expecting stores to meet their arbitrary demands.
Finally, make individual roles crystal clear, especially when team members have a diverse range of skills. This does not have to stifle autonomy, nor am I encouraging micro-management. But without clear borders, toe-stepping is inevitable and the less desirable tasks are at risk of falling through the cracks. Use competency card sorting activities to take the pain out of job description updates – and avoid management speak if you do not want them to be immediately filed into the virtual draw.