As the Head of Accounting, it’s my job to keep our team productive, focused, and on-task. Lately, there’s been a lot of conflict at work amongst our department. It seems like there are personality differences, petty arguments, and bad feelings everywhere. What would you recommend I do to smooth things over and build a stronger (more cohesive) team?
Conflict in Camden, NJ
Conflict at work wreaks havoc on moral! No one wants to be part of a team that’s falling apart. I sympathize with your problem—personality clashes and petty arguments are tough to resolve but addressing the conflict and building a stronger team will help.
As much as we’d all like to avoid conflict at work, conflicts are sure to arise between coworkers from time to time; it’s human nature. When conflict is ignored or poorly managed, resentment and mistrust build until productivity is compromised.
In any business with more than one employee, success depends on teamwork. As Vince Lombardi said, “The achievements of an organization are the results of the combined effort of each individual.”
In business (and in football), a team is held together by great leadership. Resolving conflict—or better yet, avoiding it altogether—requires clear communication and a conflict management strategy to deal with situations as they arise.
“It’s All Your Fault!”
One of the most common conflicts at work stems from a lack of accountability (in other words, the blame game). Conflicts often spring up between departments or coworkers who depend on each other to complete tasks. Every link in the chain, from marketing, sales, service, and delivery, is critical to good customer relations. If one link fails, the entire process collapses.
Finger-pointing is common between coworkers and departments when a situation goes awry. After all, no one wants to shoulder the blame for a misstep, especially if they can pass the buck onto someone else. If you notice every problem is someone else’s fault, it’s a sign your business is desperately in need of conflict management.
To help your teamwork through the issue, start with the basics: identify the source of the problem. Where did the link break? How do you ensure the issue is resolved for the long term? Running a trouble-free business environment requires strategic thinking, trouble-shooting, and organization. Address problems at the source and lead the team to a permanent solution. The biggest mistake is one you don’t recognize as a learning and growing opportunity.
While a lack of accountability seems to lead to the most frustration, there are many other common conflicts at work as well:
- Breached agreements and broken promises. Team members not completing work as promised (also related to accountability).
- The wrong skillset. Because of a lack of cross-training or mistakes during onboarding, someone lacks the right skills. This results in other team members picking up the slack.
- Lack of information or misunderstanding. While this is often a highly resolvable conflict at work, it’s a common issue. Tasks and deadlines should be clearly defined and reasonable. The process should be in place with the information necessary to complete tasks.
- High-stakes competition. While a little friendly competition is healthy, cutthroat practices that pit departments or coworkers against each other are destructive.
- Discrimination, bullying, or harassment. A corporate culture that doesn’t prevent and explicitly forbids illegal harassment is toxic to business.
- Competition for resources. When departments are reduced to scrabbling over resources due to a strained budget and cash flow issues, conflict is inevitable.
Leadership Sets the Bar: Resolving Conflict at Work and Building Your Team
Team building and communication are the keys to nipping potential conflict in the bud and ensuring greater harmony down the road. It’s vital to promote an atmosphere and company culture where everyone has a voice. Encourage workers to come forward with concerns before they become problems. Different types of conflict may require different handling.
There are times when conflict will arise because someone isn’t following a process. These conflicts are easy enough to head off, but if left unchecked, it can lead to the blame game, breached agreements, and broken promises.
Resolution of individual missteps may require retraining, setting limits and deadlines, or making job expectations clear and straightforward. Start by meeting with the worker to discuss the process and why it is beneficial to the rest of the team. You may discover a reasonable explanation of why a person is not following the protocol; for example, they may not fully understand a new responsibility. In that case, additional training may turn the situation around.
Flexibility resolves most minor transgressions. Is an employee late to work due to family obligations? Could you resolve the situation with a more forgiving schedule, say a 15-minute leeway in the morning, shaved off a one-hour lunch? Small concessions increase employee satisfaction, reduce the level of stress in the office, and impact retention rates and productivity. Remember, everyone is human with lives outside of the 9-5.
Conflict Between Two People
It’s unfortunate but common—most conflict exists between two people. One person doesn’t get along with the other. Someone offended or hurt someone else. One team member feels put-upon, while the other has his or her head in the clouds.
Resolving a conflict between two people is a big job for team leaders. Skillful resolution requires negotiation skills and diplomacy. If it’s practical, bring the parties together to talk it out and find an answer. Clarify the facts of the situation and give each person time to talk without interruption. You may find the company policies and procedures offer a solution. You may also find company policies are lacking in this area and need an amendment. Remember, if it happens once, there’s a strong chance it will happen again.
Conflict arises when someone oversteps a peer’s boundaries. To resolve this kind of dispute, clarify what those boundaries are and give your team a verbal signal to let teammates know when they are crossing the line. Encourage everyone to take a moment and cool off before re-engaging. In my company, we had a code word that people could use when someone was getting close to boundaries. The word “paperwork” signaled that we didn’t want things to go any further as it would then require formal paperwork.
Some conflicts are rooted in personality differences. These are often the most challenging to resolve. Different people use varying styles of communication. They may clash with others, or they may prefer an independent work environment. Communication is truly the key to personality differences. While coworkers may never become best friends, they can learn to communicate with each other respectfully and effectively, no matter their style. We used DiSC to identify personality communication styles and keep top of mind awareness allowing the “S” to let the “D” know what communication works best for them.
In the workplace, as in the population, some people are unpleasant, unreasonable, demanding, or mentally unstable. If the situation is beyond your control because a person involved is beyond rational discussion or decision making, you may need to call in an HR consultant. Sometimes the only answer is to remove negative influences from the team before they drag the whole team down.
Conflict Between Departments
Occasionally, “team spirit” ends up segmenting the office into different parties pitted against each other. This type of conflict is especially common in environments with high-stakes competitions or a lack of resources. Departments and teams become competitive and cutthroat.
Any time there’s a dip in sales, marketing loves to blame sales and sales loves to blame marketing; this is a universal truth in business. The resolution to this workplace conflict is encouraging collaboration between departments. Keeping departments separate and secretive—or worse, in direct competition—can cause a breakdown in productivity. Again, communication is critical.
The best advice for resolving conflict is to avoid it in the first place. Stable company protocols, clear expectations of performance, and open lines of communication will help you keep your workplace humming along in perfect harmony. Building your team up and encouraging them to work together as a cohesive unit keeps conflict down. Engaging team members from multiple departments in any significant company change brings a better understanding of both the “why” and the “how”.
Remember, it’s much easier to miscommunicate when you’re barely speaking. While it’s essential to give your team plenty of individual work time and think time, it’s also good to encourage team-building as well.
Understanding Your Role in Team Building
A strong team is the counterfoil to conflict. Productive team meetings, clear protocols, a strong company culture, and open communication are all critical to creating an organization that works together. It’s your role as a leader to foster this collaborative environment.
Management promotes team harmony in two ways:
- Building trust among team members.
- Holding each team member accountable for commitments.
Not only do these two elements prevent and address most areas of conflict, but they intertwine entirely. Without trust, it’s challenging to hold your team members accountable for their responsibilities, and if you don’t keep them accountable, they can’t build trust with you and their cohorts.
Trust is essential for a successful team. As management, your role revolves around fostering open dialogue about every topic (even the ugly issues and work conflicts). You also need to continually work to engage those subject matter experts on your team to proactively solve problems as they arise.
Trust comes when your team is confident that sharing concerns with you will result in action. It’s one thing to say you have an open-door policy, but as many jaded employees know, it doesn’t always mean you’re open to hearing criticism or are involved enough to change for the better. Trust also comes with more open communication among the team members. Everyone’s opinion should weigh equally, and their feelings taken into account. People feel valued when they feel heard. Keep in mind that you can’t please all the people all the time. Sometimes getting everyone on the same page is virtually impossible–don’t sweat it, if you have good relationships, the occasional “just do it” is acceptable.
As I said, accountability fosters trust and vice versa. Accountability means management:
- Holds everyone to the same standard. Clearly defined expectations, deadlines, and processes set the stage for accountability.
- Follows through on commitments. Team members depend on one another to perform as expected, thus feeding their success.
These areas are a struggle for many leaders, including myself. In the past, I’ve held on to underperforming team members in the hopes their performance would improve through my encouragement. While encouragement and offering second (and third) chances aren’t bad, I was inadvertently sending the rest of my team mixed signals. I was paying attention to the underperforming employee while neglecting everyone else.
Too little accountability leads to unclear expectations, leading to a trickledown effect on team managers and others. Excellent performance isn’t rewarded, and problem areas aren’t addressed. Accountability means setting up measurable and clear expectations.
When one employee needs too much hand-holding, you’re only hurting the rest of your team. When everyone else is working hard without reward or acknowledgment (because you’re too focused on boosting up one underperforming employee), their spirits get down, and it damages your employees’ ability to work together.
The other component to team building (and counteracting conflict) is bringing everyone together often. Sometimes it takes getting out of the office to enhance your team’s trust and encourage teamwork. Consider scheduling a retreat—anything from a few hours to a full weekend—where individuals learn to work collectively to problem solve through targeted exercises.
In planning a retreat, consider what specific skills you would like your team to build. If problem-solving is weak, build in activities to strengthen skills for your organization. If communication is ineffective, focus on building it. Don’t consider yourself separate from the team on the retreat; it’s crucial your team members see you as a team player.
If a full department retreat isn’t in the cards, team socials, luncheons, or happy hours give everyone a chance to bond and connect. While it may seem counterintuitive to socialize when there’s work to be done, your team will be more dedicated when they get along. This means recognizing and respecting each other as individuals. A little “getting to know you” goes a long way.
Resolving conflict amongst your team is a big job, but if you open the lines of communication, set clear expectations, and engage in team building, you’ll be well on your way to a strong, collaborative department!