Here’s a prediction for 2022, this is a year where team conflict within organisations increases significantly. Since the start of the pandemic, individuals have been reporting more stress and conflict at home. As we return to work and test out hybrid working, these stresses spill over into the workplace. It’s almost impossible to avoid, given the degree of uncertainty, the misalignment of expectations between employees and managers over hybrid working and what is likely another year of the covid pandemic disrupting our lives. The question is, how can organisations address these challenges productively?
Misalignment is an inevitable aspect of all organisations and teams. We view these misalignments as conflict, with the negative connotations associated with that word, yet it is part of life. Individuals have different perspectives and views on the topics they are working on or the organisation’s strategic direction, and sometimes people just don’t see eye to eye. From research in 2016 by Google called Project Aristotle, we know that when a team has physiological safety disagreements, differences in perspectives play an important role in generating new ideas. But when a team lacks trust and confidence in colleagues, misalignment can turn into disruptive and destructive conflict.
Research on conflict found two types, task and personality conflict. Task conflict enables teams to become productive and generate ideas. Personality conflict undermines teams and team effectiveness. Organisations must diagnose the conflict they are experiencing, create better alignment, and manage conflict productively.
Using research from across the social sciences, Mirror Mirror’s approach to alignment helps teams identify gaps in team and organisation alignment causing conflict. Understanding misalignment can move team conflict from a personality orientation towards a task orientation. The framework identifies four gaps – structural, information, perspective, and anti-team.
Structural gaps emerge from a team tasked with activities that they don’t have the necessary skills or resources to complete. They may arise from errors in how an organisation or team applies policies or processes. In general, structural gaps cause conflict in organisations as individuals feel they do not have sufficient ability to complete the assigned task and therefore cannot achieve their goals and potential. They are being blamed for the associated loss in value. Addressing structural gaps requires an organisation to re-think its strategy and resourcing. These are the easiest and the most difficult to close in some ways. They are easy to close if they come from an internal misallocation of resources or a policy that hasn’t been updated to align with a new strategy. They are difficult to fix in an organisation going through a downturn and needs to change its strategy but lacks the resources to invest fully in the new strategy.
Information gaps emerge when key operational knowledge isn’t shared or isn’t shared transparently. This can arise from a lack of insight, skills, or reach amongst the organisation’s leadership. Or, when an organisation has an established ‘core group’ consisting of people who have built up relationships with each other over a long time, this core group can operate to exclude others. Often unwittingly, this group is more likely to communicate with each other, regardless of the subject matter, stay abreast of what is happening, and come to unofficial conclusions that they subsequently act on as a unit, leaving other people out of step’. When information gaps emerge, such as when a senior leader will be changed or the new direction under a new senior leader, they lead people to make assumptions or misunderstand, which decreases trust. Addressing information gaps requires a change in the internal narrative and an active role from leadership to break down existing barriers to information sharing and the perception of insider and outsider groups. Information gaps can persist for a long time and cause significant misalignment if organisational leaders don’t take responsibility for addressing them.
Perspective gaps emerge from a difference of perspective on implementing a strategy or an internal project. These gaps are generally very common, as most organisations have many different ideas about what will work best for the team and wider company. These gaps can persist when the strategy the organisation is pursuing is not clear, when the team’s objectives have not been clearly defined, or when people have not been given the opportunity to assess the available perspectives and choices. Addressing these gaps requires brokering agreements between points of view in the organisation. To avoid personality conflict, perspective gaps need to be managed carefully, ideally with an objective facilitator.
Anti-team gaps are the most destructive and tend to be driven by personal motivations and other aspects of personality. This prevents a team from achieving its goals. Addressing such gaps requires clear and open engagement from team leaders and members and willingness from all parties to find a solution. It may also mean letting some team members move on for the benefit of the wider organisation.
The ability to view conflict as misalignment within teams and organisations is a powerful tool to create more effective and productive organisations. This is particularly relevant as many of us continue to work from home, dealing with the stresses and strains that covid has imposed on our lives. Helping organisations understand where misalignment occurs is a useful tool for structuring team conversations, moving away from personal conflict towards a task-based one.
About the Authors
Ben French www.ben-french.com @bfrenchphotos. Ben work’s businesses and not-for-profits to build the organisational structures to help them reach their full potential. As an independent consultant, senior manager, interim director, and business leader, Ben has spent the last fourteen years working with not-for-profits, businesses and the public sector across eleven countries to develop solutions to pressing strategy and implementation challenges.
Lindsay Uittenbogaard www.mirrormirroralignment.com @mirrormirrorhub
Lindsay runs Mirror Mirror – Team Reality Reporting for alignment and effective action. She studied Creative Arts, Broadcast Journalism, and International Business Communication Management in the UK. She then ran small businesses before transitioning to Global Employee Communication roles in the Energy, IT, and Telecom sectors in 2001, based out of the Netherlands. An IABC-accredited Business Communicator, Lindsay is a certified member of the Reputation Institute, the CIPD, and is a published author in the Gower Handbook on Internal Communications.
Image: “Mind the gap” by Pommiebastards is licensed under CC BY 2.0