Seek common ground

Question:

 

“My work group seems to be the always caught in the middle between other work groups. We provide operational support to a number of departments. As a result, we know what’s going on (both good and bad) in a number or work areas. The problem is when we raise concerns about this or that issue or process, we get blamed! Sometimes it starts to get a little personal like, “Mind your own business.” We get to clean up their messes and then they blame us for pointing out the problem? What am I missing here? Shouldn’t they be thanking us?”

 

Answer:

 

You raise a great issue. In our consulting experience, we run across this kind of situation very often. Despite the prevalence of team-based approaches, territories, turfs, and silos are all too prevalent. In this column, I’ll talk about some strategies for addressing the situation.

The first approach is to use a reframing strategy. The goal here is to help all stakeholders see the situation through the same lens. The key is to use systems thinking rather than analytic thinking. You need to help all involved parties see how the parts comprise the whole. To do so, you will want to do the following:

  • Identify the inputs – What are the raw materials, tools, data, technology, etc. that are involved?
  • Identify the processes – What are the key steps? Who carries out the steps? Using what methods?
  • Identify the outputs – What is delivered? What is the final product?
  • Identify internal feedback opportunities – How well is the process working? What evaluative criteria can be applied?
  • Who is the customer? – To whom is the final product delivered?
  • Identify external feedback opportunities – How does the customer feel about the final product? How useful or effective was the final product?

The second approach is a respect strategy. Consistently treating co-workers with respect can help reduce the number of conflicts. But, when a conflict does arise, sticking to the basics of respectful behavior can help to quickly defuse the situation.

  • Approach the person directly – Consider that a co-worker has made a comment that you find offensive. Rather than telling others about your feelings, “Ted is such an idiot, he doesn’t even know what he is saying half the time,” have enough respect for the person to approach them directly: “Ted, I feel offended when you call me ‘sweetheart.'”
  • Focus on the issue, not the person – When tensions run high, it is easy to begin attacking each other. Respectful behavior requires us, however, to keep the focus on the issue, not on personalities.
  • If a team member tells ethnic jokes, for example, rather than attacking the person, “I hope I don’t have to work with Mary on that project, she’s such a jerk,” have enough respect for the person to address the issue with him or her directly: “Mary, I feel that it breaks down our team spirit when you use sarcasm to put use down.”
  • Speak up – Some of us may believe that keeping our concerns or feelings to ourselves is respectful. In actuality, speaking up, airing differences, and voicing concerns is the most respectful way to approach an issue. When speaking up, keep the other basics of respect in mind: approach the person directly and focus on the issue, not the person. Use “I” statements to phrase your concerns. “I” statements focus the discussion on your feelings and concerns, versus sounding like an attack. The format for phrasing an “I” statement is: “I feel (your feeling or concern) when you (behavior or action at issue).”

 

The third approach is to use a commonalities strategy. At an individual level, you need to step back and identify things you have in common with the other person with you are having a conflict. It may be hard to focus on at times, but there are probably as many similarities between two individuals as there are differences. When we take the time to get to know each other better, to understand each other’s cultures, backgrounds, style, and preferred way of approaching a task, we bring to the surface those similarities that form the foundation for working together more effectively.

Think of the last time you met someone new. How did you break the ice or strike up a conversation? Many people comment on the weather, or ask where a person works, or grew up. In short, two people meeting each other for the first time tend to seek common ground, or things they have in common.

Apply this same approach to co-workers. Ask questions. Share information about yourself. When things get heated, or there are misunderstandings, remind yourself of your commonalities.

You can also identify commonalities between work groups. Of course, the challenges of diversity can be multiplied when you consider a group of individuals. If the work group has ten members, there may be as many as five different problem-solving styles, four different behavioral styles, ten different cultures or races, and so on.

How can a group of diverse individuals use commonality to manage conflict? By taking the focus away from the differences, and putting it on the common goals or objectives that the work groups are pursuing (perhaps using the systems thinking approach outlined earlier in this column).

If we take the time to do so, we can find numerous examples of how two work groups can achieve success by working together on a common goal. I encourage you to use the techniques outlined in this column to work with your colleagues to seek the “common ground.” Along the way, I’m confident you’ll find that team spirit increases, support for one another is enhanced (rather than simply looking out for one’s self), and individual and collective strengths are more fully capitalized upon.

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Dr. Daniel A. Schroeder is President/CEO of Organization Development Consultants, Inc. (ODC). ODC serves regional and national clients from its offices in suburban Milwaukee. Additionally, he teaches in the Organizational Behavior and Leadership (bachelor’s) and Organization Development (master’s) programs at Edgewood College (Madison, WI), programs that he founded and for which he served as Program Director.

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