How to Avoid Conflicts Between Groups at Work

Nov 14, 2016
9 Min Read
How to Avoid Conflicts Between Groups at Work

How to Avoid Conflicts Between Groups at Work

There are often complaints that technology isolates people, but anyone working in IT may have a different opinion.

If anything, IT is being asked to work more and more with other departments, rather it’s marketing, customer experience or business strategy.

While all that interaction is necessary if businesses are going to fulfill their goals of digitally transforming their organizations, it’s not always a process that goes smoothly.

Namely, teams and individuals who have different backgrounds, skills – even nationalities and genders – can find it difficult to work together. Any attempts at finding common ground can be quickly defeated as those involved become more emotionally entrenched in their positions.

Is there a solution beyond a leader simply ordering people from IT to work with other teams and hoping for the best?

Yes, but it’s not always easy and organizations have to commit to a consistent strategy, says Daniel Shapiro, founder and director the Harvard International Negotiation Program.

Shapiro, who has spent 20 years studying the causes of human conflict, says that many times collaboration and cooperation fail because individuals and leaders don’t understand what’s coming into play when there is a conflict.

For example, in his new book, “Negotiating the Nonnegotiable,” Shapiro explains that the “tribes effect,” is when emotion and identity arise in a conflict, forcing individuals to consider who they are, what they deem important and the meaning of their life. Once they feel threatened, they can become so attached to their “tribe” that they’ll do anything to defend it.

So, IT may feel threatened by those outside the department if someone says technology is unhelpful or off base – or techies aren’t good at communications or understanding the customer experience. That causes IT workers to become less cooperative with the colleagues who are critical of them, no matter what idea is expressed.

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“The tribes effect spurs you to make a blanket devaluation of the other’s perspective simply because it is theirs,” he says.

While the tribes effect tries to protect your “identity” from harm, it usually backfires. You pull in psychologically and become more focused on your own short-term interest over any long-term collaboration. You become adversarial, and convinced that your perspective is not only right, but morally superior, he explains.

That’s why Shapiro says it’s so important for managers to prevent such a confrontation.

He suggests, for example, that managers help teams from different areas get to know one another better. While an IT employee may have no skills in common with a marketing employee, they both might be parents. That bond can serve as a way to help them to avoid making snap judgments about one another that can lead to conflict, he says.

“While tech and non-tech workers may be biologically and spiritually different, it’s so important that they come to see that they do have commonalities,” Shapiro says. “That’s when you can start to build connections.”

Shapiro says he understands that many believe this is a “touchy-feely” area or it’s “taboo” to discuss how different genders or nationalities don’t get along. But managers who help facilitate such discussions so workers don’t feel threatened can then move onto the strengths that each person brings to the table.

“It’s important that no one is seen as ‘superior.’ It must be communicated consistently that the company values each person, and each person has an important role to play, no matter their job,” he says.

Managers also can help the situation by not demanding or ordering workers to get along, but instead asking them “How can we build cooperation?” he says, adding that this helps to build worker autonomy. It’s also important that all workers receive training so that they have the same language and skills when it comes to collaborating and negotiations.

That training can help workers know when they’re moving dangerously close to the tribes effects and what Shapiro calls “vertigo.”

Specifically, Shapiro says vertigo is “a warped state of consciousness in which a relationship consumes your emotional energies.” While a team discussion may start out fine, before long egos get bruised and emotions ramp up. Those involved may actually feel a dizzying vertigo from the adversarial relationship, he says.

Further, a team member involved in the interaction becomes fixated only on the angry words being voiced by the other person. Shapiro explains that each employee is determined not to resolve the argument – but to win it.  So, even a trivial matter can deteriorate into a screaming match – unprofessional and unhealthy behavior that can impact an entire company.

Shapiro says there are several ways to break free of vertigo, or to help workers realize what is happening and interrupt the process:

  1. Be aware. If employees are trained to spot vertigo – viewing the other person as an adversary, fixating on the negative – then it can be interrupted by naming it and stopping and breathing.
  2. Provide a jolt. This may be as simple as apologizing to the other person or calling on a respected authority figure to help settle things down. Or, those involved can try changing the subject.
  3. Change the physical environment. Shapiro explains that even in international relations, some key negotiations have taken place in the home of global leaders. The reason? While their children run around, “these humanizing factors have kept vertigo at bay,” he says.
  4. Slow down. Before responding to an email that makes you angry, wait a few hours. If the conversation is making you angry, stop talking and listen more to try and detect underlying emotions.

Shapiro believes that in business today, diverse teams getting along can make or break an organization, but workers must be taught the critical collaboration and negotiation skills.

“Awareness is a critical first step,” he says. “You never want to get into an ‘us versus them’ mindset because it can be like glue – it’s very hard to get out of. So, the key is to never go there in the first place.”

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