Workplace Conflicts: How Corporate Culture Can Diffuse the Drama

By Candace Coleman, CultureWise Content Manager

The average worker spends 2.5 hours a day distracted by “drama,” according to international keynote speaker and business consultant Cy Wakeman in her book No Ego.  Think about that. More than a quarter of every workday is siphoned off by internal disputes, gossip, grievances, and grudges. In a competitive marketplace where every second of productive time counts, that’s a jolting statistic.

Not only does workplace conflict dilute efficiency, it also drains enthusiasm from everyone involved and is a significant reason behind turnover. Even if business leaders aren’t aware of how much time internal discord devours in their companies, they see the fallout—and it’s a problem that keeps them up at night.

A Google search about resolving workplace conflict renders dozens of answers to queries from worried business owners and managers. The core solution is always the same thing: a strong corporate culture.

Most of these internet resources aren’t referencing the façade of culture captured by “company values” or perks created to attract and keep employees. These things don’t address how a company really operates.

The true culture of an organization is in the daily actions and attitudes of its people. The key to defusing workplace conflict is intentionally and systematically working to improve those behaviors.

Why Does Workplace Drama Happen?

People don’t enter a job or an organization as a blank slate. As CEO of Emtrain Janine Yancey notes,  “We all have our unconscious biases, our social intelligence is strong or not so strong, our preexisting mind-sets from our last job or experience. We bring all that with us into the workplace.”

In other words, we’re human. We all tend to perceive things through “filters” formed by our experiences and beliefs that automatically influence what we absorb and how we respond.  It’s very hard for people to drop their biases when they walk through the door at work. Without sustained guidance, people will automatically slip into filter mode and they usually don’t even realize they’re processing things this way.

Those filters prevent individuals from looking at things from others’ perspectives. Instead, they automatically see things through a lens of judgment based on their own opinions. That kind of attitude sets the stage for misaligned expectations, poor communication, ego issues, and bruised feelings. Drama.

The Effects of Conflict

When workplace conflict starts to happen regularly, it doesn’t just impact the people directly involved. Employees not engaged in friction between individuals or groups still have to work with those who are. Daily drama has a ripple effect on everyone in the organization—whether they’re working together in one location or connecting with others virtually. If routine conflict is left unchecked, the overall cultural environment will deteriorate.

And workplace conflict doesn’t just negatively impact individuals. Many drama-related problems drain profit.

Three significant repercussions of workplace conflict are:

  1. Depleted morale
  2. Project failure
  3. Attrition
Morale

Even if people are performing capably, a conflict-ridden atmosphere will deflate everyone’s mood. The pervasive drama takes a toll not only on how people feel but how they perform. Employees’ energy is sapped when unpleasant interactions are the norm, and they find it harder to enjoy what they do every day. They become disengaged.

People start to become less productive and even chalk up more days off to take breaks from the toxic workplace climate. Malaise and extra sick days not only affect organizational efficiency. They cost money when management has to pay overtime or hire temp help to cover for lagging performance or absent workers.

Project Failure

Most jobs involve some level of coordinating with other people. It’s normal for interaction to generate differing opinions. In fact, multiple perspectives usually improve outcomes. But when individuals start to get defensive about their ideas and tempers escalate, a joint project can derail, or entire departments can begin to misfire.  

The time it takes for management to sift through internal disputes costs money. After they finally get things back on track, everyone involved has lost momentum, and outcomes are delayed.

If a stopgap “band-aid” remedy for a conflict is applied, resentment is likely to keep simmering and will erupt again the next time the same people work together. Every collaboration will take longer and won’t produce the best results as long as the drama continues.

Attrition

The highest cost of internal conflict is the loss of talented staff. People start to leave when they get fed up with the stress of clocking into a workplace peppered with daily bickering, one-upmanship, and grudges. They’ll take the first job that offers more harmony—even if it’s a lateral move or possibly for a little less money.   

When drama takes center stage at a company, employers not only lose good people. They surrender the time and expense they put into recruiting and training the staff who left and those who will replace them. And when people walk out the door, they take a wealth of organizational knowledge with them. Their valuable experience on the job can take years to cultivate in someone new.

The point to note here is that people usually enjoy what they’ve been trained to do. They don’t quit a strife-ridden workplace because they don’t like their job. They quit because they don’t like the drama.

Don’t Just Treat the Symptoms

Managers often react with quick, one-off conflict remedies as problems arise. But when they try to douse emotional fires too fast to keep things moving along, issues tend to keep popping up. It’s frustrating and stressful for leaders to get caught in a “whack-a-mole” cycle of settling disputes instead of making progress on team goals.

The secret to diminishing conflict in an organization is to recognize that conflict itself isn’t the problem. The problem is in the underlying corporate culture.

Leaders who make a conscious effort to improve that culture, and do it systematically so that the improvements stick, will eliminate a lot of workplace drama. They’ll also have measures in place to address it when it does happen and won’t have to reinvent the wheel with every issue.

By reshaping their company culture, business leaders can focus on curing the underlying problems that generate conflict instead of just treating the symptoms with temporary peace-making measures.

To Stop the Drama, Rewrite the Script

As mentioned earlier, an organization’s culture is rooted in the behaviors of the people who work there. To make meaningful change in that culture, company leadership should take three steps:

  1. Identify and define optimal behaviors
  2. Teach the behaviors in a systematic way
  3. Practice the behaviors so they become habits
Identify and Define Optimal Behaviors

If you’re seeing a lot of conflict among your employees, the negative behaviors should be obvious. By the same token, it shouldn’t be hard to determine the behaviors you’d rather see that will allow employees to work together effectively and that will drive organizational success.

The first step is to create a list of the behaviors you want to define your company’s culture. The list might include behaviors like:

  • Assume positive intent
  • Listen generously
  • Get the facts

Once the behaviors are identified, they need to be clearly defined. To help people shift away from attitudes that stoke drama, they need to hear precisely what is expected of them.  For instance, the definition for a behavior like “Listen Generously” might be the one used at CultureWise:

Listening is more than simply “not speaking.”  Give others your undivided attention. Be present and engaged. Minimize the distractions and let go of the need to agree or disagree. Suspend your judgment and be curious to know more, rather than jumping to conclusions. Above all, listen to understand.

When people understand the standard behaviors set by their company, there is little room for misinterpretation. A list of defined behaviors gives employees a model to follow that encourages accountability.

Teach the Behaviors in a Systematic Way

Even if standard company behaviors are spelled out, it’s crucial to teach and discuss them consistently. Managers and supervisors should be provided with the same educational tools or curriculum to teach these behaviors and the “common language” generated in their descriptions.

A haphazard approach to helping employees make this cultural shift won’t be very effective.  For instance, if a supervisor uses their own method to coach a group about a behavior, and then the team hears something contradictory from the department head, they’ll be confused about what to do.

Teaching the behaviors systematically ensures that everyone is on the same page.

Practice the Behaviors so They Become Habits

Anyone who has ever challenged themselves to master a sport, learn a new language, or play an instrument knows that practice is the key to success. Doing something over and over again is how we get better at it.

The same principle is true when a company embarks on a culture initiative. No matter how well articulated standard company behaviors are and how consistently they’re taught, things won’t change or improve without practice.

The best way to encourage practice is to develop rituals that everyone follows. A good ritual might be to open every meeting with a brief discussion about a specific behavior and how it applies to the topic of the day. People could then be encouraged to share their views about how applying that behavior would positively impact a group goal.

When something is practiced often, people start to do it automatically instead of thinking about it. Like the “muscle memory” gained by repetitive physical activity, when behaviors are regularly practiced through rituals, they become second nature.

Don’t Just Think about It, Do It

Changing a company’s culture may sound like a great concept, but it also may seem like a daunting task. Actually, it’s not that complicated—and it’s much easier than dealing with chronic workplace conflict. Fortunately, there are some great resources that provide different levels of help.

One of the most insightful books about bringing out the best in employees and driving organizational success is Culture by Design by David J. Friedman, CultureWise Founder and CEO. Mark Moses, Founding Partner of CEO Coaching International, recommends it as the most useful and practical guide to building a high-performing culture available on the market.

The newly issued second edition not only provides a step-by-step guide to improving company culture; it also demonstrates how a strong culture can help leaders face the growing challenges presented by today’s remote work environment. A free, two-chapter preview of the book is also available.

Another option is to subscribe to an operating system for culture like CultureWise, which provides all the critical curriculum, tools, and content in a turnkey format.

For business leaders challenged by workplace conflict, the important thing is to take action. Develop a plan to improve your culture and stop the drama from controlling your business.