Trust and the Bottom Line: Part Three
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6 Ways to Optimize Performance Through Openness & Accountability

By: Ethan Schutz

At this stage in our discussion of trust, the core of The Human Element, it’s time to delve into what commonly happens when conflicts arise and how that impacts organizational performance. Understanding why interpersonal conflict is seldom, if ever, addressed directly is essential to moving past these roadblocks and to begin building a corporate culture of trust.

Logic does not drive our reaction to interpersonal conflict.

When “people problems” begin to interfere with productivity, we don’t tend to address them logically. Instead, there are a trio of common behaviors that organizations default to:

  • Ignoring the problem:

    Leadership acts as if interpersonal conflicts don’t exist, or, if they do exist, they do so without having much impact on the organizational morale and performance. This behavior is rooted in the hope that ignoring the problem will cause it to go away.

  • Pretending powerlessness:

    Another common response to interpersonal conflict is to convince ourselves that nothing can be done to fix the problem. The general belief is that ‘people problems’ are just a normal part of doing business, and energy and resources are expended to avoid or minimize them.

  • Abdicating responsibility:

    In this scenario, friction between two individuals is seen as their problem only. The onus is placed on them to address and successfully resolve the issue without burdening the rest of the team. The impact of their success – or lack thereof – on the rest of the team is conveniently ignored.

Why do we avoid addressing interpersonal conflict directly?

Addressing interpersonal conflict can be very scary. Power dynamics complicate the issue. Workers fear that bosses may become punitive, while leaders worry that disgruntled employees could sabotage their efforts. Emotional responses can be very powerful, including feelings of anger and anxiety. These emotions are considered inappropriate for the workplace, so leaders and workers alike are uncertain how to process and express them. Over time, unresolved interpersonal conflict reduces the level of trust in the workplace.

Differing perceptions are the root causes of trust loss.

Trust diminishes when we do not perceive ourselves or others accurately. These incorrect perceptions lead to damaging behaviors which further negatively impact trust levels.

  • What happens when we don’t see ourselves as other people see us:

    Although it is common to make assumptions about what other people think of us, those assumptions aren’t always correct. The disconnect between our own self image and other people’s perception of us can contribute to interpersonal conflict.

  • Understanding the tendency to assume the worst:

    In low trust environments, information isn’t shared freely. Absent accurate information, we tend to make up stories that make sense to us – and for many people, that means imagining the worst-case scenario. In interpersonal conflicts, worst-case scenarios include assuming the other party doesn’t care, forgot, were actively trying to sabotage our efforts, were acting in a retaliatory manner, were incompetent or are just simply jerks.

  • Defaulting to defensive behavior:

    Being confronted with situations we don’t know how to handle is uncomfortable. It’s not uncommon to manage this discomfort by becoming defensive or anxious. Wanting to protect ourselves and “CYA” shifts focus away from working collaboratively. Criticism, complaints, and blame-placing become priorities, along with excessive approval-seeking or self-blame. Defensive behavior often manifests as the giving of unrequested advice, as well as the ability to deny what is happening, even in the face of clear evidence.

The cumulative effect of differing perceptions, assuming the worst, and defensive behavior is to look away from unproductive behaviors. This may help us feel better in the short term, but it ignores the costs to the organization, to productivity, to future opportunities, and to ourselves.