Peter Mills outlines how creating conditions for constructive working relationships requires actions in six different areas
Research continually shows that organisations with constructive working relationships are seen as great places to work. Such organisations are more likely to have high-performance cultures with high levels of employee engagement. So why don’t all organisations have the constructive working relationships that enable productive work?
When trying to resolve these issues, leadership teams often talk about culture. They target organisational values or behaviours. Time and time again the focus moves to individuals and not the working environment that creates conflict in the first place.
Conflict at work usually occurs when people are not able to perform their work or when expectations are not met. This manifests itself in the use of poor behaviour by one or both of parties concerned. The causes of failure are often outside the control of the individual or groups concerned, so if the causal factors are not changed, the conflict will remain unresolved. Furthermore, team members may inappropriately seek protection and support from others, thus creating third parties to the manager-employee relationship and spreading the conflict.
What is needed is an approach that considers the whole working environment, not an assumption that something is wrong with the individual, while leaving the causes unattended. While good interpersonal skills are part of the solution, they have limited value in a workplace or a working relationship which is otherwise flawed in its design or is subject to ineffective leadership.
Creating conditions for constructive working relationships requires actions in six different areas.
i. Set Expectations of All Employees
All managers must set expectations on how team members are to work together and then to hold them to account for their delivery. If expectations are not set, then "the way we work around here" will still develop, as this is the nature of people in groups who have to interact.
Managers must be specific, for example:
- Do what is right for the function and the organisation even when this may cause a potential difficulty in your own area
- If agreement cannot be reached, then escalate to your immediate manager to either clarify the context and/or make a specific trade off decision.
ii. Effectively Design the Organisation
An organisation’s structure provides the shared understanding of the accountability and authority of how work is organised and delivered. Poor design can result in:
- Unclear accountabilities and authorities
- Duplication of effort
- Multiple managers
- Lack of freedom to think
- Boring, unchallenging and unsatisfying roles.
These create an environment for negative behaviours such as:
- Micro managing
- Empire building
- Job protection.
Such behaviours impact the ability of people to work together and creates a working environment that hinders constructive working relationships.
In the horizontal structure, the area of conflict tends to be the handoff points, where work is transferred from one function to the next. Issues often relate to accountability and authority, resourcing and systems of work.
In the vertical structure:
- If there are too many levels, work will become too confined with not enough room for decision making. There will be overlap and duplication. Authority and accountabilities will likely be blurred, yet everyone is busy.
- If a work level is missing, there will be a lack of traction in getting action on strategies or plans. Managers will need to dip down to fill the missing work level.
- If a role is stretched across multiple work levels, its unique value add will be confused or unclear.
In each case the outcomes are predictable and will impact working relationships.
iii. Clearly Define Roles and Role Relationships
Well designed roles, with clear accountabilities and authorities, provide the rules for engagement. They enable people to work together constructively towards business goals.
While the design of all roles is important, one of the biggest sources of relationship issues is the design of specialist roles, such as technical specialists and planners. Issues arise when employees do not have a clear understanding of the nature of a specialist's separate, but complementary work i.e. “What authority do they have and how does it relate to mine?”
To reduce potential conflict all roles and relationships must be clearly defined, embedded into the organisation's systems of work and communicated to all those impacted.
iv. Provide Effective Systems of Work (policies, procedures, communication and IT technologies)
Systems of work coordinate and direct work. They create custom, practices, traditions, beliefs and assumptions, which in turn creates the organisation's culture. Systems of work must be designed in a way that supports work and does not hinder it. They must to confirm to specific design principles such as:
All systems of work must have:
- One system owner
- Measures of performance
- Feedback mechanisms
When well designed, the influence of systems of work will be highly productive. If poorly designed, their influence will be counter-productive and will cause conflict.
v. Build Strong Manager-Employee Relationships
The foundation of having constructive working relationships is built on strong manager-employee working relationships based on achieving business goals. Being a managerial leader is not about being charismatic, using charm, trading favours or relying on working the politics within an organisation. Nor is it about building or sustaining personal friendships or social relationships. It is about having the skills to do your role.
It is achieved by managers:
- Demonstrating capability in their role
- Providing a safe place to work
- Demonstrating the behaviours of honesty, integrity and respect
- Consistently and fairly applying the organisation’s systems of work
- Continually engaging their team by communicating what is required for the business and why.
vi. Develop Specific Role Related Interpersonal Skills
As social interaction is required to achieve business outcomes, the use of good interpersonal skills provides the "social glue" to enable people to work together. Managers need specific skills to support the delivery of their role. These include skills to:
- Address conflict
- Address unacceptable performance
- Recognise good work.
Building constructive working relationships requires an approach that covers the whole working organisation, i.e. the organisation’s structure, roles and role relationships, systems of work and managerial leadership, along with the symbols they create. How these are designed and delivered will either enable people to work together constructively or it will hinder them. Focussing on interpersonal skills alone is only a band aid solution to workplace issues. If the issues are not resolved, then the conflict will re-emerge.
About the author
Peter Mills has over thirty years of experience in human resource management in a range of industries, including engineering, manufacturing, investment, petroleum and IT. His new book in his Leadership Framework Series is Don’t Fix Me, Fix The Workplace: A Guide to Building Constructive Working Relationships (GOKO) www.theleadershipframework.com.au