Blame the person? Roots of interpersonal conflict
The scene still sticks in my mind. I was working with a company that had field and headquarters groups engaged in what seemed like an intractable conflict. I was individually interviewing members of each group in a small, windowless conference room. When it was their turn, I asked each of them what the nature of the conflict was and what they thought was causing it. I took careful notes.
After recounting some predictable nonsense about never having enough time or information, one interviewee, a young female head office employee, had the courage to say what was really on her mind.
“Look, the problem is that Marian [one of the field people] It wasn’t very nice,” the honest soul said. “She’s much older than us, she doesn’t understand the database we use, she doesn’t learn no matter how many times we tell her, and she thinks we’re all too young and inexperienced. Basically, she looks down on us.”
“In fact?” I said. “If there was someone else in the field besides Marian, wouldn’t you have the problems you mentioned? Is it her?”
“Mostly, yes,” was the reply.
Eventually, I was able to have a heart-to-heart with Marion. She was a veteran salesperson, working fairly independently, had a previous career as a high school teacher, and was a very determined woman.
“I’m dealing with people who don’t understand the pressures I’m facing, what my priorities are, and what I need to do my job. They’re typical inward-looking home office wonders. This time, they’re pretty green and concerned.” for no mistakes on their part. They point fingers at me all the time for asking them to fix problems that I think they should fix. Of course, they say it’s not their job. They’ve created a database that is impossible to work with. They are ridiculous.”
Perfect, I thought after hearing from almost everyone. Two groups that did not like each other. In fact, they blamed each other for all sorts of problems. What a delightful opportunity to teach both sides a lesson in human reactions to organizational flaws.
I knew from experience that the trigger for interpersonal conflict like this is often the word “blame.” “I blame him for making us miss our deadline.” “He’s to blame because he just doesn’t care.” “Who can work with people like that? Blame them, not me.” When I hear blame, I know the path to the solution with a high degree of certainty.
When people start blaming others, it is a sure sign that something is most likely wrong, not with the people, but with the performance system they are working on. Why? You need to start with the belief that most people, given the right tools and resources, direction and clarity, will do, and actually want to do, a good job. Do you remember the kind of best intention they had on their first day of work? Almost everyone starts there.
In fact, think of an interpersonal conflict you experienced with a subordinate or observed as a co-worker. Keep in mind that most people, with a few obvious exceptions, don’t come to work with built-in conflict with others, ready to unleash it on their co-workers or bosses. No, instead, the system creates disappointment for the worker that leads to performance deficits that result in blame. Therefore, the trajectory that results in people being blamed or co-workers developing unproductive behaviors and attitudes typically begins when a well-intentioned worker discovers that the system they are working on has a built-in frustration or flaw. and that defect is not fixed immediately. fixable.
For example, imagine an anxious new hire who is asked to perform a particular task, say testing chemicals in a production process. Things go well as long as the testing process is exactly like the one the manager demonstrated. However, when the manager goes to a two-day conference and the production process changes, the testing procedure soon presents challenges that go beyond the new hire’s budding skill level. When the manager returns to find many incorrectly rejected batches, the new employee gets a worst-case reprimand for making so many mistakes. “I thought you knew how to do this.” “I wasn’t sure how to do the procedure with the new chemical.” “You should have looked it up.” “Where?” “In the manual. What’s wrong with you?”
And so it goes on. Now, the new employee goes home with a point or two less enthusiasm for the job. “My boss should have told me.” The manager thinks that he will have to keep a close eye on the new employee because, well, he was wrong. Both sides have the seeds planted for a guilt-ridden future. Throw in a few more incidents where the new hire doesn’t perform and blames the manager, and the manager gets frustrated with the once-engaged employee and has a perfect storm of interpersonal conflict. No longer anxious, the injured employee will attack behind the manager’s back, make excuses, cut corners. You already know what happens next. The animosity grows and pretty soon people really start hurting each other. This all happened because the boss didn’t tell the new person where the manual was!
What fails when performance falls short of expectations is the performance system that surrounds the employee. Blame that for not working, not the people. The good news is that system performance can be fixed, sometimes very easily, without much cost or effort.
I always start the fixation phase by placing the antagonists in the same room. The basic rules are that we are looking for what has failed, and our premise is that it is not people. Then I ask them to name the types of processes that bring them together and I list them on a flipchart. In the case of the head office and field situation, there was a sales process, a reporting process, and some information sharing processes. We start with a single process and go through it step by step. What happens first, then what, what do you do next. Every step of the way, I dig to see what might have gone wrong. It is usually one of the following:
Tools (forms, systems, manuals) do not work effectively, are outdated, or are unavailable or inaccessible.
· People are not sure of the process, it has not been mutually defined. However, the process leaves out important steps. People are working with an inadequate procedure.
· There is a skills gap: a person has not been properly taught or is not up to date. They have not been trained or educated to master the skill.
Resources in the environment are insufficient: unrealistic time or budget, inadequate facilities, poor lighting, uncomfortable and insensitive human factors (no privacy, environment)
Often, there are no consequences for abnormal and near miss performance. People learn to perform below standard, rather than the required high standard. The person does not receive clear feedback that would improve, correct and raise performance. People are not involved in discussions about how to achieve better results.
· Performance expectations (standards and quality) have not been communicated to the performer by anyone, particularly the manager, and they do not receive regular feedback on their performance.
corrections and rewards. The actor does not know what is good.
A failure in any of these components of the performance system can cause both the results and the work process to fail. In my experience, the sources of problems that most often arise as the cause of interpersonal conflicts are, far below the root cause level, inadequately defined processes and poorly provided tools.
This becomes very clear when you ask both parties involved in a conflict if they get what they need to do their jobs at each step of the process. For example, one party is not getting the information they need because the form being used by the other person providing the information is requesting too much data, most of which is not available in a timely manner. So the person completing the form waits until the information is complete and then submits the form. The person who needs the information gets angry because it is late, blaming the provider.
If instead of this reaction, both parties could objectively look at what is happening, they would see that the problem is the way they work. The answer is simple: redesign the form, make it in two parts with urgent information first and breaking information second. When the source of the conflict becomes apparent and both parties are involved in resolving it, the conflict ends.
What can you take away from this short speech about interpersonal conflict?
· Conflict between people is very often rooted in a faulty performance system that links their work together.
· Guilt is a sure sign that the system is broken. Usually, 99% of the time, people are not the cause. However, it seems to be human nature to blame people first. Beware.
The blame turns to performance issues of all kinds. The result is unhappy workers and, eventually, customer service issues. Interpersonal conflict can go far beyond the initial cause and lead to person-to-person enmity. Objectively finding the true root cause can be difficult if you’ve gone this far.
Solutions to interpersonal conflicts come through the process of carefully reviewing procedures. Can each party articulate what needs to be done? Does the process make sense? Do you have the tools and
skills to do well? Do you know what is expected? Does poor performance pass as adequate?
Bottom line: It’s a manager’s job to know this. People who work together to solve their problems with each other in this way end up changing their perceptions and attitudes about each other.