Resolving conflict and getting back on track.

Unknown-1There is a tendency among leaders to mask conflict, even when there are underlying issues that could threaten the future of the organization.

We recently worked with a successful and creative organization that was beginning to feel itself go off the rails. The company is the gold standard in the industry. It has received numerous prestigious awards for its work and is renowned for its innovation. The staff takes pride in excellence and in pushing boundaries. Walking into the office, you feel you’re among the creative elite.

But there are other feelings you get when you walk into the office—tension, confusion and frustration.

We began by taking a look at the company’s organizational structure. Staff members were invited to share their observations and experiences based on a number of different attributes that define their organizational culture. The result was a narrative you would expect of a creative company—cool and casual, lots of hip gadgets, games, and a clubhouse vibe. But there were also attributes that were red flags: passive aggression, lack of communication, procrastination, and frequent whispered conversations.

Our one-on-one conversations revealed significant unresolved conflict.  And the leaders were ‘checked out’ to avoid confronting the issues. The single biggest issue raised was a pervasive lack of trust.

How does a successful company get to a place where trust has unraveled? Three obvious causes stand out: unresolved conflict, unclear expectations, and a lack of accountability.

Productive conflict is always good if handled well and resolved in a timely fashion. If left to fester, conflict is like a poison that will slowly kill off trust.

Creative companies pride themselves on their nimble size and flat structure, and typically avoid job descriptions. The benefit is that people are fluid and move freely from one task to another. The risk, though, is that no one accepts ownership of anything; and no one is held accountable if something doesn’t work out. This leads to finger pointing, frustration and conflict.

We developed a series of exercises designed to shift the culture to one that invites open communication, establishes clear expectations, and holds people accountable for their work. We engaged in responsibility (RACI) charting until everyone felt comfortable with their areas of responsible and accountability.

Accountability is the willingness of team members to remind one another when they are not living up to the performance standards of the group.

Embracing a language of accountability among team members will help build a ‘culture of accountability’ necessary to drive performance and resolve conflicts along the way.