As a leader, have you ever found yourself in an exasperated moment, thinking to yourself, “Why can’t they get along?”
I’m going to guess most of us have. If so, I guarantee you’re not alone.
Helping your team work together can be more difficult than expected. I’d like to share a career-changing moment when two of my highly competent employees went to war with each other.
My Pivotal Experience with Employee Conflict Resolution
Let’s go back in time over 25 years ago when I encountered this problem head-on, when two senior-level executives felt they could no longer speak to each other without me present.
As they shared their proposed solution with me, I was speechless. They refused to talk to each other, and they wanted me to fix it.
My first thought: No! I can’t. I won’t. I really don’t have the time. Don’t they know that I worked until 2:00 a.m. last night and have a couple thousand emails, for starters.
I was lost, confused and overwhelmed. First, they seemed really angry, and I was just flat out anxious and uncomfortable (aka a little scared) around that much anger.
Second, I didn’t actually know how to fix it, so that was a problem.
Third, I needed them both desperately because they knew things that I didn’t know, and didn’t have time to learn at that moment. So, what did I do?
I told them no. It was one of my first eye opening experiences about the power of no. Wow! Talk about liberating. After telling them no, as in, “No, I won’t be able to be present at EVERY one of your conversations,” I gave them an assignment. (Another great lesson learned – engage everyone in the solution!)
The assignment, go to lunch every week with each other and start talking. Guess what, a few weeks in, they told me they had worked it out. I am not sure if that is because they wanted to stop having lunch together or they made peace, but either way, they worked together productivity and respectfully after that..
Communication & Conflict at Work
They helped me understand that we don’t all know how to work with each other. What do I mean?
As adults working together, we can struggle to:
- Communicate directly when we think someone may be upset or hurt.
- Be non-judgmental with others who aren’t doing things the way we would.
- Offer support for people or ideas that we don’t like.
- Get along! Yep, it can be tough to just plain get along.
Why? Well, I have given this a lot of thought.
Why It’s So Hard to Communicate
Many of us think communication is organic—that when we learn to speak, we know how to communicate. While some people recognize this isn’t the case and take on the study and practice of communication, many of us do our best to navigate personally and professionally with the skills we honed over a lifetime of practice.
This means that we most often bring a lifetime of conscious and unconscious learnings about communication to the workplace (some quite helpful, and others, well—not).
There are a myriad of complex factors that contribute to how we communicate as well, including our:
- Feelings and history with authority figures
- Personal relationships, both with family and friends
- Comfort level with diverse opinions
- Need to control or have predictable outcomes
- Confidence with sharing ideas
- Work culture (i.e., openness to co-creation, disagreement, etc.)
As a leader, you have a golden opportunity to help your team communicate well.
Improving communication among your team is hard work, so of course you want to know if it’s worth it.
I’m here to tell you that yes, it is!
Learning to Improve Internal Communication: Why It’s Worth It
As you and your team uplevel your communication skills, you will start to see the following payoffs:
- Building a strong foundation (or strengthening the existing foundation) for sustainable and productive relationships.
- Being able to more openly share diverse (and conflicting) opinions, leading to more creative solutioning.
- Having increased energy because you will be able to focus on the work instead of attending to undercurrents (aka the tension in the room that we pretend isn’t there).
- Communicating directly with each other to work through challenges or ask for support.
- Creating a more welcoming and engaged work environment.
4 Steps to Improve Internal Communication
How can you help your team be great communicators and be excited to work together?
Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Take a look at your current leadership and employee training programs and assess how much time you currently allocate to communication and team building.
- Consider increasing your investment in these concepts and integrate them throughout your training programs (new employee, ongoing, leadership development programs, coaching programs, etc.).
- Have a discussion with your peer group and direct reports about your current company culture and how it supports or blocks open communication. Some questions you can ask during this discussion: Are people encouraged to share diverse opinions? Is time allocated to meaningful discussion? Are team members consistently engaged?
- Become a student of communication yourself and encourage your team to do the same. One resource our team has found helpful is the Work & Career section of Help Guide, which includes blog posts on effective communication and other work-related issues.
I wish you and your team great success in your journey to understanding one another and working together phenomenally well! Investing in communicating well opens the door to greater understanding and stronger relationships. One last tip – make time to talk with each other and listen more than you talk. 🙂