Last week you read about the first two steps from my workplace conflict prevention program. We discussed establishing a positive culture as a foundation, and good management strategies for organizational change. Those two tools can go a long way in improving your culture and preventing conflict, but they are only a small part of a truly comprehensive program.
My experience as an independent workplace investigator has given me a bird’s eye view of workplace conflict as it unfolds, and I have been able to spot a few patterns. One pattern is that there always seems to be a singular point in time where the action could have been avoided. Over the next few weeks, I will be posting a series of blog entries that address best practices for conflict prevention and resolution while identifying potentially triggering turning points. This is the second post of that series.
Similar to organizational changes, changes in company leadership need to be handled with care and diligence. At the top of a company or in a department, a change in leadership will be well-served by an accompanying plan that takes into account the growing pains that may be felt as employees adjust to a new leader.
Here are a few potentially triggering situations:
- A new organizational leader (a CEO, president, or senior operational leader) brings with him or her a new team, a new approach, or a new business plan.
- A new department leader is selected from the outside (especially if an internal applicant did not get the promotion), or a leader who wants to go from 0 to 60 quickly (in terms of implementing a new way of running the department or wanting to become “the new sheriff in town”).
- A new department leader is promoted from within.
And here are some practices to consider when addressing these situations:
- Unless there is a dire need for quick action, the tried-and-true “observe-and-then-act” approach can be useful. A commonly cited rule of thumb is for a new leader to spend at least 90 days observing and learning before implementing major changes.
- Avoid using language such as “old” system, “old” regime, “old” team, etc.
- Implement robust integration systems for all new employees, particularly new managers who are coming into an environment that is resistant to a change in leadership (or particularly resistant to this new leader).
- Whether you are the recipient of an internal promotion or new to the organization, beware of addressing all problems at once. The most common scenario here is trying to correct performance issues for a long-time underperformer who has been evaluated positively by previous managers.
- If you have a person going from peer to supervisor, develop an immersion or integration program that addresses common issues, particularly how difficult it is going from peer (friend) to supervisor and how important it is to become well-versed on HR issues as a supervisor.
Communicating in a transparent, precise, and intentional way is an integral part of a healthy business culture. Though not always easy, it is good practice to create a culture where people learn to respectfully present differing opinions or even complaints. Keep in mind that an increase in the number of complaints offered is not necessarily a bad thing. Numerous studies indicate that objectionable behavior often goes unreported and deprives companies of the opportunity to engage in early conflict resolution.
When change occurs it is important to use your best skills at wordsmithing to convey appropriate and precise messages. The key is to be methodical, but also compassionate, creative, and consistent. Note, too, that concern with saying the wrong thing can sometimes freeze leaders into doing nothing. (There is an often-cited myth that saying less is better, that sharing too many details is dangerous.) Issues, however, do not go away on their own, despite our wishes or hopes that they would.
Here are a few triggers regarding poor communication:
- Failing to set expectations (early and often) about the position, department, and company;
- Failing to provide useful performance feedback;
- Failing to prepare for difficult communication (as to discipline, termination, performance improvement plans, etc.);
- Failing to anticipate questions or issues and think about answers;
More effective practices include:
- Prepare and practice for difficult conversations.
- Develop a script and an FAQ document to address issues that are likely to arise.
- Be precise and transparent. Share appropriate details and information. For example, be compassionate but direct and honest during a meeting concerning a termination of employment.
- Courts have repeatedly indicated that if a reason for discharging an employee is given at the separation meeting, but a different reason is provided at trial, the question may become, “Were you lying then or are you lying now?” Be careful, but be honest.
- Practice. Have a mock meeting with someone who will ask questions that are likely to arise.
- Approach performance feedback with a problem-solving mentality. The goal should be to provide feedback and resources that will make the employee successful.
- Listen. Do not listen merely to respond, but rather to truly hear what the employee is saying.