Industryweek 11999 Employee Relations

Workplace Leaders: Yes, You Do Have to Sweat the Small Stuff When it Comes to Employee Relations

Sept. 27, 2016
Leaders who fail to address the “little things” before they escalate risk workplace behaviors that result in low productivity, low affinity, and low levels of employee engagement. Here is a guide to what to look for and what questions will help clarify the problems.

Paying attention to the details is a lost art in many circles, but when it comes to communicating effectively at work, it’s essential.

Leaders who fail to pay detailed attention to their team’s interpersonal dynamics will quickly discover that when employees are not working cohesively as a team, performance will lag and previously-high metrics will be more elusive to achieve.

Dysfunction thrives when leaders fail to explore and address specific behaviors that result in low productivity, low affinity, and low levels of employee engagement. And direct reports, almost without exception, tend to view leaders who procrastinate in addressing the team’s disruptive behavior as weak, ineffective and incompetent.

Gallup reports that approximately 68% of the workforce is disengaged or actively disengaged; so clearly, this is an issue that cannot be ignored.

This is a serious challenge and it falls squarely on the shoulders of the leader.

In leadership, the following axiom is true: What you ignore becomes more. What you tolerate will soon take over. But what you challenge will change.

Over the years, I’ve developed a model to help motivate leaders to address the “little things” before they escalate to something far more unmanageable. The premise is very straightforward. There are three levels at which the leader can intervene in the conflict escalation process:

Inconveniences. These are the small incidents that, if allowed to reoccur, begin to grate on the nerves and patience of the team member.

Being left out of an email chain, not being recognized in a meeting, or making an appointment with a leader that is not kept are all small things that if they continue to occur or are left unaddressed, can damage a work team.

These behaviors may not be deal breakers when considered individually, but think of each incident as a drop of water accumulating in a bucket; eventually, the bucket will overflow.

There will always be challenges in inspiring a team to reach its full potential, but they can be dramatically lessened if a leader simply pays attention to the details surrounding a team’s interpersonal interactions.

—Kendall C. Wright

Conflict. Conflict manifests itself in many forms. At this stage, accumulated inconveniences bring about a more aggressive display of retaliatory behaviors.

Those behaviors may include arguments, avoidance, sabotage, or attempts to besmirch the competence or character of another team member. Here, the persistence of conflict can easily contribute to the perception of a hostile or intimidating environment.

Crisis. This occurs when outside entities become interested and involved in the problem. Once your company is the lead story on the evening news or the front page story in the newspaper, you have a crisis on your hands.

Lawyers or public relations professionals can spin the situation, but crisis mitigation is always expensive. It takes a toll on your bottom line as well as team morale and your company’s reputation.

It’s crucial to note that each move along the continuum requires a different set of skills, and each move also further expends human and capital resources. As a responsible steward of organizational resources, leaders do well to remember this: it will always require fewer resources to address an inconvenience than to resolve a conflict.

 In short, it pays to be proactive.

Here are seven of the most common inconveniences that can occur in a workplace:

Capricious Rule Enforcement.  Allowing a few employees to circumvent rules and guidelines is not a good bet. An example may be that some people almost always return late from lunch and break, without consequence. 

Being Left Off/Out of Communications.  Anyone can make a mistake – once or twice-- but when there is a pattern of being excluded from the flow of information, it won’t be long before this becomes a point of contention.

Role Confusion/Ambiguity.  A coworker behaves as if he or she is the supervisor – but he isn’t-- nor has he been asked or authorized to do so.  A reminder of his or her role in the organization is absolutely essential and the situation should be immediately rectified.

Overt Displays of Insensitivity.  Seemingly “innocent” comments or feigned humor that can be construed as belittling or insulting can reinforce common negative stereotypical perceptions. If this behavior is allowed to continue, team members may become disengaged or depart.

Minimalizing Ambitions.  To be overlooked in consideration for a learning opportunity or a special assignment is off-putting, especially when a team member or manager nonchalantly says, “Oh, I didn’t know you were interested in that sort of thing.”

Isolation/Exclusion.  Everyone likes to be included. People are sensitive. To be an “after-thought” when invitations to lunch or after-work events are extended incites anger and resentment.

Selective Validation of Ideas or Contributions.  When a new idea is floated in a meeting, note which ideas are met with enthusiasm and which are met with disdain or derision. Endorsing contributions and ideas contingent upon the performer or the source of the idea, not on objective merit, is a sure-fire way to get under a team member’s skin.

In order to identify these inconveniences as early as possible, and then work to reduce or eliminate them, the leader must initiate honest and genuine conversations.  These conversations should encourage direct reports to share their experiences—good and bad-- as a team member. Use probing questions to achieve this goal-- not in the sense of an interrogation, but in an inquisitive, curious manner. 

Here are four key questions that will help any leader get under the surface of a team’s interpersonal dynamics:

  • How would you characterize your experience as a member of this team?
  • When do you feel most respected as a member of this team?
  • What behaviors leave you feeling, in any way, disrespected?
  • From your perspective, what would enhance our overall team dynamic?

Remember this: the quality of your questions will define the effectiveness of your leadership. And while these questions may not be especially entrancing, the ensuing dialog will pay remarkable dividends.

There will always be challenges in inspiring a team to reach its full potential, but they can be dramatically lessened if a leader simply pays attention to the details surrounding a team’s interpersonal interactions.  To ignore the early-warning signs is to set up yourself and your organization for disheartening and costly setbacks in the marketplace. 

Staying proactively attuned to the team’s dynamic positions the leader to effectively leverage the talents of the team while preempting potentially distracting or divisive behaviors.  The best leaders know this and practice it faithfully; moreover, they make a practice of encouraging their direct reports to do the same.

Kendall C. Wright, CEO of Entelechy Training and Development, Inc., helps business leaders at all levels fulfill the difficult parts of their job descriptions. He is an internationally-acclaimed author, facilitator and keynote presenter. Find free resources at Contact Wright at [email protected] or 513.368.LEAD (5323).

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