Friday, June 18, 2021

CEO Insider

Dealing with workplace tensions? Here’s how leaders can mitigate conflict to make teams more productive

Ilana Zivkovich, Founder & CEO, Werq (Photo: file)

The passions that divisive political and social issues invoke are making their way into all aspects of our lives — including the workplace. 

For business leaders managing teams with differing views, growing tensions can have a significant impact on team morale, productivity and performance. But, at the same time, it’s important for employees to feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves to the workplace in order to support those very same objectives.

The question for leaders becomes: How do you address workplace divisiveness in a way that encourages honesty and honors individual viewpoints, while also avoiding conflict and supporting a healthy team dynamic?

As with many things in life, prevention is key. Leaders who take a proactive approach to workplace tensions will enjoy much better results, both in the short term and long term. With this in mind, here are seven key do’s and don’ts for leading teams that can work effectively together despite (and even because of) their differences.

DO lead with emotional intelligence.

In these volatile times, emotional intelligence is no longer an optional leadership skill — it’s a must. Not only does leading with EI support high-performance teams, it will also equip you to take a more proactive approach to addressing conflict.

The foundational tenets of emotional intelligence — awareness of self, awareness of others and your ability to manage your own emotions and connect with others — will enable you to be more in-tune with each person’s traits and your workforce as a whole. With this foundation in place, conflicts won’t come out of left field. Instead, you can anticipate disagreements or perceive animosities as they arise and adjust your communication.

DON’T set blanket rules that people can’t discuss divisive issues.

It’s natural to want to avoid hot-button issues in the workplace entirely, but that creates more problems than it solves. Social and political topics are going to come up — people are consumed by them. Discouraging open discussion will only backfire, resulting in a stifling culture of distrust, secrecy and intense internal conflict. Instead…

DO clarify company values and communicate behavioral expectations upfront.

Coworkers are more likely to engage respectfully with one another when they have a set of guiding principles for how they’re expected to interact in the workplace. Every company has its own identity, so it’s imperative to first define your company’s unique values and then communicate the behavioral expectations aligned with those values to get everyone on the same page.

To clarify your values, try asking each member of your leadership team to think of a story that exhibits your company at its best, and then identify the values in that story. Examples might be inclusivity, integrity and respect. This will help define your organization by the ideals you truly embody, rather than who a consultant says you are.

Once your values are defined, consider questions about your workplace such as:

  • What kind of behaviors are expected of our team members?
  • What behaviors are unacceptable?
  • How will we encourage behavior that aligns with our values?
  • What will be the consequences for unacceptable behavior?
  • Are we communicating these expectations consistently?

Once you’ve defined your cultural norms, make a concrete plan for supporting them in practice and communicating them clearly throughout your messaging, as well as through your leadership actions.

DO address workplace tension around sensitive topics if it comes up, but…DON’T make it an issue if it doesn’t.

The last thing you want is for the “elephant in the room” to prevent your team from working well together. If discord arises, acknowledge it and don’t dance around the issue. However, this should be a conversation about how you can return focus to your shared goals, not about your personal stances. What are you trying to accomplish as a team and what’s getting in the way of that? Realign with those values and behavioral expectations to get back on the right track.

On the other hand, you also don’t want to create a problem where one doesn’t exist because it might feed the animosity you were trying to avoid in the first place. Rely on your emotional intelligence skills to determine which is the right move. Be present. Listen attentively. Awareness of others will not only enable you to proactively address workplace tensions, but also to avoid distracting your team unnecessarily.

DON’T automatically assume everyone on your team agrees with you.

Depending on your organization, it’s not always advisable to be outspoken about your personal opinions when you’re in a position of power. Even if people are nodding their heads or verbalizing agreement, this may be more about aligning with you than being true to themselves. Instead…

DO consider the impact of sharing your beliefs or political opinions in the workplace.

While authenticity is a powerful leadership trait, part of leading with emotional intelligence is evaluating the impact your words and actions will have on the people around you. Again, return to your guiding values. Your organization may choose to take a stand behind a political, social or religious cause, and that’s ok — but it’s also necessary to stop and consider the impact of sharing your personal opinions within that context.

Ask yourself questions like:

  • Do the ideas I want to express line up with our defined values?
  • What benefits are there to this type of transparency?
  • Will this affect anyone’s ability to feel safe or remain productive in the workplace?
  • Will this prevent my team from working well together?
  • What consequences may arise for those who feel or believe differently?

If it’s likely to cause members of your team to feel uncomfortable, fuel resentments or spark arguments in the workplace, it might be wiser to keep those opinions to yourself — at least until you get home.

DO focus on building psychological safety within your team.

A Google study known as Project Aristotle found that the greatest determinant of team success was a sense of psychological safety, an environment in which people feel safe to be themselves, speak their minds and take risks in the workplace. While this certainly isn’t a quick fix, laying a solid foundation of trust is the most effective strategy for mitigating workplace tension or avoiding it altogether.

On teams with psychological safety, every contributor has a keen awareness of one another’s personality traits and values how each individual communicates. There is trust that the team will work well together under any circumstance so that, when divisive issues do arise, the team can address them confidently, without fear of negative repercussions. When you have that sense of trust as your baseline, things that would otherwise be divisive become manageable.

With the right framework in place, you can set your team up for success so they can get back to their primary objective: working well together. By leading with emotional intelligence and rooting your workplace interactions in shared values and set expectations, it’s possible to cultivate a sense of psychological safety that will see your team through even the most divisive periods.

However, workplace tensions won’t be solved in a day, and there will likely be missteps along the way. But the goal isn’t to “solve” the issue outright — the goal is in growth and grappling toward greatness together.

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Ilana Zivkovich
Ilana Zivkovich is the Founder and CEO of Werq, a strategic leadership advisory firm headquartered in Austin, TX, serving clients around the country and abroad. An experienced executive leader and Certified Executive Coach and certified Genos Emotional Intelligence Practitioner, Zivkovich helps leadership teams align their people, processes and strategy so that businesses can achieve exceptional results.

Master of Science in Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin.

Ilana Zivkovich is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow her on LinkedIn.