Conflicts in the workplace are everywhere. We often blame them on personality differences or an inability to communicate effectively with one’s colleagues. When widespread, they destroy staff morale and can be the hidden reason why your employee engagement strategy is failing. But there’s one significant cause of workplace conflict that often gets overlooked: the absence of shared tools for cross-departmental collaboration.
Since I solve these kinds of challenges for a living, it’s fun to look back at some of the pivotal moments in my career that inspired me to do what I do. And as someone trained in public health practice, I’m always keen to look at how our environment shapes and influences our behaviors in good and bad ways. Here’s a little story to illustrate.
I had a colleague several years ago, let’s call her Sheila. Sheila and I were both mid-level managers at our organization with closely related roles but sitting in different departments. We rarely worked on the same projects together but the work of our teams frequently overlapped and intersected in a variety of ways.
Some of our work involved publishing content out to external audiences. When I saw something Sheila’s team had published, I’d often have heart palpitations followed by seething anger because she hadn’t consulted me ahead of time. She had the same reaction to the things that I was churning out. This unfortunate chain of events sparked a mutual resentment and anger that grew and festered over time. It was a very unhealthy situation.
“When I saw something Sheila’s team had published, I’d often have heart palpitations followed by seething anger because she hadn’t consulted me ahead of time.”
Being somewhat inexperienced in the dark arts of office politics, I didn’t do a great job of working the various angles available to me to resolve our differences. For starters, I tried to express my concerns to her directly. That move came off as threatening and she flatly dismissed my attempts to engage. So I did what many employees do and complained about it to my boss, confident that this approach would yield a favorable result. Of course that’s not what happened.
“Being somewhat inexperienced in the dark arts of office politics, I didn’t do a great job of working the various angles available to me to resolve our differences.”
Things between me and Sheila went from bad to worse. She found out that I had complained about her to my boss and that really got her blood boiling. She went from not sharing what she was working on to actively hiding what she was working on. In retaliation, I did the same. Even the most thoughtful employee engagement strategy could not have mended the rift between us or made us “happier at work.”
“Even the most thoughtful employee engagement strategy could not have mended the rift between us or made us ‘happier at work’.”
It just so happened that I was working on a cross-cutting project for my organization to design and launch a new social intranet at the time. One of the goals of this new system was to support greater transparency and collaboration across departments. After a period of rapid growth, silos of information and knowledge were popping up everywhere, making it nearly impossible for staff in different departments to collaborate effectively. Systems like email and cross-departmental meetings, which had worked fine when there were far fewer staff and departments, were now woefully inadequate.
The situation between me and Sheila was a case in point. I realized that our supervisors were ill-equipped to serve as the point of exchange for everything their respective teams were working on. There was simply not enough time during meetings to brief one another on everything their teams were doing and, to add to the difficulty, they didn’t even get along! The chances that Sheila or I would proactively send emails updating each other on our work was pretty much nil. In the absence of other tools, we were out of options.
“I realized that our supervisors were ill-equipped to serve as the point of exchange for everything their respective teams were working on.”
A few months later, as the intranet project got underway, I had a spark of inspiration. I needed to pilot a cross-departmental collaboration group on the new site to test out its functionality and demonstrate its value to leadership. I immediately thought of the troubles Sheila and I had been having for the last two years and decided to reach out to her. This time, instead of coming to her with complaints, I came with a solution: let’s launch a group for our teams to “work out loud” with one another so we can stay in sync as we work. After a short pause, probably to gauge whether my proposal was a hidden trap of some kind, she agreed.
“This time, instead of coming to her with complaints, I came with a solution: let’s launch a group for our teams to ‘work out loud’ with one another so we can stay in sync as we work.”
Fast forward to three months later. Our teams were using the new group to share documents and updates, which was helping us to get our work done more efficiently but also making it visible to members of the other team. Instead of feeling left out or resentful when hearing about what Sheila’s team was working on, I could casually throw out a question or comment and get a quick response. To my surprise, Sheila’s team seemed to appreciate the feedback and was forthcoming with information. My team was following suit. The transformation that took place over a few short months, all because of this new way of working, was way beyond what I had expected. Sheila and I even met up for drinks to talk about some projects of mutual interest. The future was bright.
“The transformation that took place over a few short months, all because of this new way of working, was way beyond what I had expected.”
So when investigating the reasons behind the lackluster performance of your latest employee engagement initiative, dare to think differently. How could the right communication and collaboration approach boost morale and productivity in your organization? It might just be the solution you’ve been searching for all along.
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