Disagreements, misunderstandings, and personality conflicts are nothing new in business. So long as human beings work in and manage organizations, there will be internal strife—and no company is immune to such distractions.
That said, economic uncertainty and downsizing jitters (neither of which we’re strangers to these days) can function as an ominous catalyst, escalating internal disagreements into organizational divides that make for an unpleasant and unproductive work environment.
The Shape of Strife
Internal strife takes on many different forms in a corporate environment. Conflicts can be veiled with biting sarcasm, harsh words, tense meetings, or even infantile bickering. But it’s senior management's approach to conflict that dictates the long-term effect it will have on the company. When management confronts conflict as soon as they observe serious disagreements, they can help the individuals work through their problem to find resolution. But if management doesn't confront internal strife and offer legitimate opportunities for resolution, it becomes akin to a germ that can infest the entire organization.
Recently, the sales department of one organization encountered serious problems related to the reporting of their team’s sales figures. It seems senior management did not care to clearly define sales territories or account lists for the sales team, so when two members of the team inadvertently sold products to two different divisions of the same company, both individuals counted the sale as part of their goals. But the client considered the two sales to be one transaction, and expected the company to treat it as such.
In this example, senior management's response was to allow the sales staff to work out the issue themselves, then inform them of the resolution. Neither salesperson was willing to lose the account, however—especially in such a slow economy. Conflict ensued, the problem escalated, and the productivity of the entire sales team decreased as a result of growing animosity.
If this organization had adopted a company wide no-tolerance policy toward internal discord, the team members may have been more inclined to resolve the conflict, rather than expend inordinate amounts of time backbiting over the sale. Or, if management had intervened to help the team resolve the problem and offer an opportunity for open discussion, they could have facilitated the finding of common ground. Instead, they allowed the problem to fester, costing the company time, money, and productivity.
The truth is, internal strife is very common in the workplace, especially when one's job performance is directly tied to the amount of money raised for the company. Strife does not have to be divisive, however; it only becomes so when it is allowed to fester and become accepted as a part of the company's DNA. Conflict does not go away just because it's ignored. In fact, it is more probable unresolved conflict will escalate when ignored.
Effective managers recognize the disruptive repercussions of unresolved conflict, and they won't allow it to disturb the workplace simply because they want to avoid troublesome personnel issues. Good managers put their personal discomfort aside to provide strong leadership to their department and/or the organization.
More often than not, conflict does not center on one or two people; if it did, resolving the conflict would be easy. Instead, interpersonal problems in the workplace are frequently the result of increased stress, mounting anxiety, or unresolved fear.
Senior managers should work with their human resources departments to ensure proper controls are in place to address conflict head-on. Their ultimate objective should be provide a safe, unbiased environment in which to resolve internal strife, build goodwill, and maintain employee morale and productivity.
SMM columnist Joyce Harper is the founder and CEO of Sharper Solutions, LLC (www.sharpersol.com), a management consulting firm.