How to design your culture to end it so as to stem the loss of talent and productivity?

Workplace conflicts are not new. In fact, in many organizations, workplace conflicts happen in various forms resulting in distrust, disengagement, and politicking to gain the boss’s favor or to seek promotion. Regardless of the size of the company, when there is no practice to manage differences and conflict at work, a prolonged situation of conflict begins. This type of ‘war at work’ results in the loss of talented staff and even takes people who were on the wrong side as prisoners.

Without a systemic approach to overcome conflict and disagreements at work, employees might agree in public when they actually don’t. They refuse to contribute their professional opinions when an ‘enemy’ is near, resulting in loss of productivity. Department heads then carve out silos to protect their team’s turf and compete with each other to secure the limited resources of the company.

What are the costs of war at work?
War at work is the No.1 enemy of business performance. It is even more fatal than external competitors as it distracts the organization. According to our organizational research on hundreds of companies with staff strength ranging from 31 to 1800 employees in Asia over the past 12 years, the biggest challenge preventing innovation at the workplace is due to internal conflict arising from ineffective communication practices and unclear roles and responsibilities. A CPP study also shows that the average employee spends 2.1 hours per week dealing with workplace conflict in some way while managers spend somewhere between 40 percent to 70 percent of their time addressing workplace conflict.

It is a waste of talent as instead of focusing on achieving the higher goals for themselves and the organization, staff end up using their skills to protect their turf. It is a waste of time, especially for those who want no part in this war but end up spending time trying to navigate turfs or be the ‘bridge-builder’ to reconcile differences.

Conflict at work erodes trust, commitment, and loyalty. It is the No.1 productivity killer as everyone works based on assumptions which are not accurate and it slows down corporate initiatives.

It’s time to design your business to end it.

1) Know the cause
A ground-breaking Google research project concluded that the composition of a team made no difference to the team’s success, rather, what matters is the trust and the ability to work as one. From our experience in transforming organizations in Asia, we have found that it is not so much about the diversity of workforce or personalities that causes conflict in the workplace. Rather, most conflicts at work have one common cause; the lack of clarity from leaders. Lack of clarity in how an organization conducts its business and organizes itself with regard to communication lines, career development road-mapping, and value creation.

Workplace conflicts happen because quite a few people take feedback personally and when there are no clearly written rules of communication and codes of conduct, a misunderstanding potentially turns into a major issue.

Workplace conflict can also happen when employees interpret that there are only limited positions of power and authority to move up and when the remuneration scheme is based not on merit, but on how close the person is to his or her superior.

Workplace conflict takes root because the way the appraisal system works is to separate employees into good and bad ones, like a zero-sum game. As a result, staff end up not competing against their own selves to grow to their fullest potential but end up competing against their colleagues, resulting in unhealthy competition.

2) Redesign your system to create peace at work
Peace at work does not happen by chance. Through our work, we have learned five important lessons that have been useful for us and the clients whom we have served:

a) Recruiting the right fit people
We can learn from many success stories including Starbucks and P&G that it is a waste of time to hire the wrong fit and expect that you can change people’s personalities and character to blend in with your culture. We cannot change people’s nature, so, make sure that the hiring process takes cultural fit into consideration.

b) Nurturing the workplace condition for healthy teamwork
Teamwork is by design. To enable teamwork, the management team must invest time for employees to practice and reflect on teamwork. There will not be cooperation without understanding and respecting each other’s point of view as well as their thinking and working style.

Understanding that everyone can easily get caught up with a ton of work and end up with no time for self-reflection, we have practiced “Circle sharing” every Friday since 2005. It is a weekly sharing session in which each member is given 5 minutes to share about how the week has been, what each has learned. Sounds simple? Yes, indeed. It is a simple yet most useful way to create unity and trust among employees since employees will start to respect one another’s emotions and are mindful that all members should contribute to the conversation equally. Learn more about Circle sharing here.

c) Be concerned of your staff’s personal development journey
When a new person joins the firm, he/she should be assigned a talent mentor, most of the time this being their immediate supervisor. The immediate supervisor’s role is no longer just to provide guidance at work but also to develop the potential talent of his/her subordinate.

Since a person’s goals and development needs to evolve over the years, the management team should make time for the talent mentor to conduct a yearly review to track and make sure their reporting staff’s goals are well aligned with corporate goals. During this session, the talent mentor should show concern for the staff development while giving feedback and recommendations. In this way, the talent developer will grow as a mentor while the staff will become more confident in their abilities and feel secure in expressing themselves at work. When staff finds a caring and trusting environment, they will be more likely to approach challenges and obstacles as an opportunity for them to overcome themselves, instead of being in a defensive mode.

d) 360-degree performance review
The ultimate purpose of the performance review is to harness employee’s strengths and weaknesses so as to excel at work. To ensure that the evaluation is merit-based and objective, the performance review must encompass all dimensions and be both qualitative and quantitative.

Firstly, each employee should evaluate himself/herself against their goals. This dimension will reinforce the notion that it is the responsibility of each employee to be aware of his/her strengths and weaknesses and how he/she wants to improve.

Secondly, the employee should be reviewed by his/her, immediate supervisor. Apart from the personal journey review, which is more on the development angle, the supervisor will evaluate his/her reporting staff based on the company standards and requirements instead of comparing with someone else.

Thirdly, the employee should be reviewed by his/her peers. Working dynamics will be measured accurately and unhealthy competition will be minimized.

Fourthly, the employee performance should be measurable with regard to business impact. Quantitative metrics should be in place to measure how much he/she contributes to the cost saving and revenue generating through building processes, implementing new initiatives and innovation.

e) Identifying and grooming emerging leaders
Identifying emerging leaders and grooming them is never too early. Most SMEs believe that their company is still young to consider building the next generation of leaders. However, to be able to ensure the longevity of the firm, the management team must start to prepare for their exit now. The immediate benefit of starting now is to remove the common fear by employees that they will have no more room to grow in the company. Starting now implies that management team has thought of how to bring the business to the next level and how they will need staff to grow and become the future leaders of the firm. This creates confidence among employees and in return makes them more devoted to work.

Workplace conflicts are growing and should not be allowed to continue as it destroys motivation and kills creativity. However, knowing how to mitigate workplace conflicts is just one part of the success. The other part is having the will to build a culture that values development, collaboration, and reconciliation. The process can be tedious, and it requires a strong commitment to follow up and follow through. Remember that you reap what you sow and a culture of unity is possible by design.

Image courtesy of bplanet at FreeDigitalPhotos.net