5 Ways Leadership can Transform a Conflicted Workplace

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When there is no enemy within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you. ~ African proverb

If you’ve spent any time in the corporate world, you have dealt with office politics and departmental conflict. Over the past 20 years, I think I have seen every type of workplace culture, from teams that were aligned, externally-focused, and successful in the market to those which were more dysfunctional, internally-focused and operating in constant conflict. In every case, it was the leader that drove the culture.

The problem is that internal negative conflict and office politics can kill a company’s morale and performance. CPP Inc., the creators of the Myer-Briggs Assessment, published a study on workplace conflict a few years back. Their findings were interesting. According to the 5,000 employees surveyed:

  • 85% experienced some level of regular internal conflict at work
  • 29% dealt with internal conflict on a frequent or continual basis
  • 12% said that disagreement among senior managers was frequent or continual
  • 16% said a recent dispute escalated in duration and/or intensity
  • 27% have seen conflict lead to personal attacks
  • 25% have seen conflict result in sickness or absence
  • 9% have seen conflict lead to a project failure

Their findings showed that U.S. employees spent an average of 2.8 hours a week dealing with internal conflict costing companies more than $359 billion in productivity.

While internal conflict can’t be totally eliminated, it’s the role of the leader to align the team to focus on achieving the organizational goals.   The energy spent fighting internal battles needs to be redirected towards activities that add value and move the team forward. Here are some ways a leader can transform a conflicted workplace:

Set the Example. As a leader, employees are not only listening to what you say but also watching what you do. If your team sees you regularly bad-mouthing your peers or spending energy fighting turf wars, they see that as acceptable behavior.

Focus on the Competitors. If your organization is spending time fighting internally, your competitors are probably winning. I regularly remind my teams that, “the enemy is outside the four walls.” I explain that the problem isn’t with marketing, production, engineering, accounting, sales or any other internal department or group; it’s the competitors we need to worry about.

Focus on the Customer. The customer is the final judge of the performance of an organization. I’ve seen many internal battles fought over the right way to do something without ever involving any customers. Getting your team to spend time with customers changes this. It will help you gain a common understanding of what customers really want which will focus your organizational energy on meeting those needs.

Get the Organizational Structure Right. Often times, the organizational structure itself can create conflict. This is especially true with large global organizations. I’ve seen situations where teams were brought together to accomplish a task, all having different reporting structures, different bosses, different priorities, and limited authority. Conflict and escalation was inevitable. As a leader, it is important to ensure a clear organization structure with simple reporting lines, common goals, and delegated authority to get the job done.

Align the Incentives. In large corporations, it is not uncommon to have a variety of incentive plans for different departments, functions, activities, and levels. It is also not uncommon for people on the same team to have incentives that are in conflict with each other. The sales manager, for example, might be incentivized on order dollars while the operations manager might be measured on revenue margin percentage. This could set up a serious internal conflict, for example, when considering a large order with low margins. Part of the role of leadership is to ensure that, for the most part, the incentive structure aligns the team around a shared set of common objectives.

As a leader, it’s important to get the most out of your organization. If your teams are constantly fighting, politicking, positioning, and expending energy locking horns on every issue, you may be operating in an internally conflicted workplace. It’s your job to fix this by aligning the team and turning the energy into creating value for your customers and stakeholders. You can do this by setting the example, focusing on the competitors, focusing on the customers, getting the organization structure right, and aligning the incentive plans. It is important you send a clear message that you are all on the same team and the only victory that matters is winning in the market place.

What do you think? Can some conflict be good? Are there other issues that can create internal office conflict, like strong personalities, pressure to perform, or past experiences? What other activities can be done to minimize the internal battles?

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