As a consultant, I had an opportunity to learn of the following interaction between Mark, a senior technician, and Brian, his immediate supervisor. The numbers indicated were provided by the participants some time after the interaction.
With obvious impatience Brian walked up to Mark’s desk and asked, “Are you finished with that report yet?”
“I’m working on it as fast as I can!” Mark snapped, with fire flashing from his eyes. “I’ll give it to you when I’m ready.”
When Mark turned back to his computer, Brian stomped back to his office.
When we consider the well-being of a corporation, we often examine profits and other quantifiable indicators, but the health of an organization is really composed of all the “little” interactions that happen uncounted times every day between the people who work there—like the one between Mark and Brian. If enough of these interactions are unhealthy, that organization will falter.
By itself this interaction between Mark and Brian might appear to be minor, but let’s look at its consequences. Notice that all of these have a significant negative impact on the function and profitability of a company:
- From personal experience we all know that when we feel offended by someone, we don’t do our best work for that person—we’re far too busy feeling hurt and defending ourselves. Mark was offended that Brian was being demanding and critical, so Mark responded, quite unconsciously, by working on the report even slower than before—65% slower, in fact.
- When Brian attended the meeting where Mark’s report was needed, Mark didn’t have all his figures together, and his lack of preparation was one factor in losing a valuable account.
- Attitudes don’t come with nicely defined borders or time limits. Once the report was completed, Mark continued to harbor ill feelings toward Brian, so he worked less than diligently on other projects also. This decreased his overall productivity by 35% compared with former levels, which was 45% less than the output of comparable employees. Of course, he always had elaborate justifications for his lack of performance, but these excuses didn’t reduce his waste of company time and money.
- Mark diligently avoided Brian: He never spoke to him unless spoken to first, he was slow to answer Brian’s emails, and he often ignored Brian’s phone messages entirely. This affected the ability of both men to do their jobs.
- Mark often withheld information that Brian needed to make decisions about marketing and product modification.
- Mark talked negatively about Brian to other employees, wasting company time and infecting company morale like an insidious virus.
The constant state of tension with Mark created a condition of wariness and defensiveness in Brian that he carried into his interactions with other employees. Gradually, the level of contention in the entire office increased.
When people feel offended, they almost always acquire a sense of entitlement—a feeling that they deserve to be “repaid” for their injuries. In this way, Mark felt justified in making personal copies, surfing the Internet, and making personal long distance calls on company time and equipment.
Conflicts like this between Mark and Brian are so common that they hardly even stand out. In virtually every company I’ve investigated I’ve discovered many
- employees who just can’t seem to get along with others.
- employees who resist direction.
- employees who consume a vastly disproportionate amount of their managers’ time.
- managers who are at their wits’ ends about how to deal with some of their direct reports.
- workers who exude an attitude of simmering discontent.
- managers who are resisted and disliked by most of those they supervise.
- employees who consistently create obstacles in communication and collaboration.
These problems are far more than inconvenient. They result in
- an enormous loss of expensive employee time. Workers who are embroiled in conflict of any kind can’t possibly be as productive as they might otherwise be.
- an infectious spread of poisonous morale.
- increased employee turnover, which causes a loss of capital (the high cost of employee replacement), a loss of valuable experience, and a further degradation of morale.
- increased absenteeism. Unhappy employees are far more likely to call in sick or simply not show up.
- work-related injuries. Angry workers are much more likely to become involved in accidents than those who are calm and able to concentrate on their work.
- a loss of vital communication.
- a negative effect on relations with customers.
- a considerable loss of time for managers. Ideally, managers should be occupied with encouraging, uplifting, motivating, coordinating, and training, but their time for these highly productive activities is greatly limited when they are distracted—both physically and emotionally—by dealing with endless crises.
In short, these “little” conflicts have a massive impact on the corporate bottom line, so we cannot afford to allow them to continue. We must become as zealous in solving human problems as we are in attending to the breakdown of necessary equipment, for example, or the interruption of the flow of vital information.