The Real Reason You’re Running into Conflict in the Workplace

It's more than just a lack of trust.

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Courtesy of Slaan / Shutterstock
Courtesy of Slaan / Shutterstock

As a consultant, my clients often ask how they can deal with problems like lack of trust and conflict in a work environment. But in my experience, these aren’t the real problems. More often than not, issues like distrust and disagreement are really symptomatic of something more deep-seated.

They’re really signs of poor communication.

Poor communication can manifest in a lot of different ways. This is often why it’s hard to pin down exactly where things are going wrong. When we look at each of these signs as isolated concerns, we’re missing the bigger picture. And so, we often miss signs that tell us to change how we communicate.

In my experience, here are three of the top signs that poor communication is at work, and how you can fix them.

1. Lack of Trust

Trust is the essential foundation for team development and employee engagement. When people don’t feel like they can trust each other, we start seeing other symptoms. Signs such as passive-aggressiveness, low morale, and sarcasm, that suggest things aren’t functioning as they should be.

The Lencioni Trust Pyramid is a great way to understand how pivotal trust can be. Put simply, the figure below shows how trust is the foundation for everything else that helps teams function well. Trust allows for healthy conflict, which encourages buy-in and commitment. Only trusting, committed teams can we work easily towards accountability and results that matter.

Here’s the key takeaway: In cohesive teams, people aren’t afraid to show vulnerability and acknowledge their mistakes.

Building Trust

We need to combat these communication breakdowns by building trust. First up, teams can make it “okay” to acknowledge mistakes. When one person feels safe doing so, others will realize that showing vulnerability is accepted.

Then build on this through constructive feedback—in the Sphere of Influence, a tool we regularly use, we emphasize two things. Give feedback while allowing space for questions, and listen actively. This means the person giving feedback can create a space for the receiver to ask and clarify. One tip we commonly suggest is to ensure your feedback is focused on performance, and not personality. This is more objective and less of a shock for the receiver. The person receiving feedback could take this opportunity to build a better understanding of what this feedback means for their development. If it’s too much to take in at first, they can always come back to it when they feel more up to it.

2. Silo Mentality

A department, team, or individual can also adopt a “silo mentality” that hampers collective performance. Often, this starts at the very top of the company and trickles down, impacting each and every one of us. You may have noticed how slow and frustrating progress can be when it’s hard to get information from elsewhere in your organization. This withholding style is nothing but a bottleneck, impeding collaboration.

But how is it poor communication? It’s actually a complete absence of communication in most cases! Silo mentalities create obstacles that stifle the normal flow of dialogue, ideas, and growth.

Breaking Down Barriers

This is where leaders play a role. Managers, supervisors, executives, and other leaders can adopt an Inspirational style, with one clear and simple message.

This is the message: It’s ‘we’, not ‘us and them’.

Sometimes leaders aren’t aware of the messages they send; they may not realize they’re encouraging less than helpful mindsets. By becoming more aware of what we say and how we say it, we can communicate more positive messages instead. Rather than adopt and encourage silo mentalities, leaders should encourage and help to grow collective commitment.

3. Frustration

Frustration is a very broad symptom but commonly results when employees lack the understanding to perform at their best. It’s not unusual for negative feelings such as resentment, frustration, and even stress to bubble up when we feel like our very best efforts are not seeing results.

Imagine you’re pumped with energy to deliver a great result—there’s nothing you want more. But your manager isn’t 100% (or even 70%) sure about what he considers a great result. How can you respond?

Most likely, with frustration!

Communicate Goals Clearly:

The clear solution is to give clear goals. Transparency is very helpful in resolving frustration around performance. As a leader, start by outlining the specifics. Be as straightforward as possible, then invite questions from your coworker. It is not a waste of time if it’s going to save you both from pointless effort, or worse, resentment.

At a higher level, leaders can encourage organization-wide understanding of strategic goals. When people know the company’s vision like the back of their hand, individual tasks will make a lot more sense.

Even if you’ve never assembled a table before, that clear picture on the packet is a lot more helpful than just a bunch of parts and pieces.

How about you? Have you encountered these problems before in your career? Or are there other common signs that quickly alert you to poor communication?

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