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Managing the Downside of Diversity: When Employees Clash

Dear Evil HR Lady,
If clashes keep occurring among team members, (whether due to personalities, ages, nationalities, communication or work styles), who is best able to identify, address, and formulate solutions? Should conflict resolution be addressed by our manager or by members of the work team? What behaviors should be attempted before I decide to leave the organization?
Of course, the manager should be addressing these work conflicts. Part of a manager's job is to make sure that the team functions well together. Human Resources should act as a resource for the manager to turn to when help is needed in this area. It should all work together perfectly and peace should reign.

Except when it doesn't. There are lots of reasons for a lack of team unity--an incapable manager, unresponsive (or incapable) HR department, lack of resources, and really rotten team members. Sometimes all of these combine for a big team building nightmare. I suspect you're in the midst of one of these and are desperately hoping to wake up and find everything peaceful and calm.

Good luck with that.

So, what should you do (if your manager isn't handling this) before deciding to leave?

Look for similarities, not differences. You know that fun word "diversity"? Lots of people talk about how your strength comes from your diversity. Hogwash. Your strength comes from your unity. As long as you're looking at how you're all different (age, personality, race, blah, blah, blah) you think, "I can't possibly work with this team. We're too different!"

I'm not arguing that you should only look for clones on your team. (I need everyone to be between 5'8" and 5'10" tall, with an aversion to high-heeled shoes.) But you need to stop looking at the differences and look for the similarities.

The big similarity is that you should all have the same goal. If you don't have the same goal no amount of team building can address the issue. If you do have the same goal, then you can all work around the communication styles. ages and background issues. Yes, a diverse group can have lots of good opinions which can be a catalyst for building great results, but it's your unity in purpose that will allow those great ideas to be carried out.

You don't have to look alike, sound alike, or have similar backgrounds in order to be unified in your purpose and end goals. Remember--diversity of ideas=good. Diversity of goals=miserable team failure.

Prepare to compromise. Me? I prefer e-mail. I think it's a super-fabulous way to communicate. I can send you an e-mail at any time and you can answer it at any time. Yippee! No one gets their meeting interrupted and as long as everyone is on top of everything, emergencies don't crop up as frequently because we can easily all be in the loop. Plus, you have the added benefit of a documented record of what went on and what was decided.

But, I've worked with people who strongly prefer telephones and face to face communication. We could have spent all day saying, "Why are you calling me, you should send me an e-mail?" or "Will you stop it with the e-mail and just pick up the dang phone?" Or, we could be grownups and deal with it.

No one ever had to say, "Suzanne, you need to compromise with Steve (not his real name), and figure out a schedule. On Tuesdays and Thursdays you communicate via e-mail and on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, you call each other." No, instead I just realized that if I wanted a timely response to something from Steve, I needed to pick up the phone and call him. After our discussion, I would type up an e-mail, documenting our decisions, and e-mail it to him.

This way he got the conversation he needed and I got the documentation I needed. Yippee!

Some of you are saying, "Hey, but you had to do the changing here. That's not fair. Steve should have made an effort to e-mail you."

Well, maybe. But the reality is, this is (drum roll please) not a big deal. Got that? These big differences in styles are not a big deal. You change if they bother you.

Give in when it's not a big deal. Now, when the differences are not so much style, but rather that someone believes she is "direct" when what she really is is "rude" it's a different issue. I don't advocate you switch your style to be rude back, but I do advocate taking a step backward to evaluate.

You can spend all day analyzing why she's like she is, and she may even justify her "direct" communication style by saying, "Everyone [from where she grew up] speaks like this." Fine. But, if it really bugs you, you need to take a look at it and decide how much of a problem this is. Let's say that you turn over a power-point deck to your coworker for her additions and she comes back with, "Slide 12 is a mess and is completely unclear. Slide 7 is unnecessary. Slides 14 and 15 are redundant." This is completely different than saying, "Slide 12 is a mess. I can't believe you did such shoddy work, you stupid squidlips!" The former is her chosen style of communication and is fine. The later, not so much.

I realize some of us (me included) prefer the much softer approach of "This is an awesome Power Point Deck. Slides 2 and 4 were utterly fantastic. How did you pull that data together so quickly? But, I have a couple of suggestions, if that's all right. Slide 12 was a little unclear to me. Can we maybe add something in about [blah blah blah] and remove this graph? I think it's kind of detracting from the overall message. Likewise, I think you've covered the information in slide 7 in a few different slides..." But this isn't the "right" way to do it, while the other way is "wrong."

It is true that we should give positive feedback more than negative feedback, but you can't make other people do that. Heaven knows, I've tried. You can only set the example yourself and hope for the best.

Stand up for yourself when it is a big deal. If the problem is of the "you stupid squidlips" variety, then you need to stand up for yourself. You can try the soft response first, "Jane, I'm sure you didn't mean to call me stupid. Can we discuss what changes need to be made?" and then, "Jane, do not speak to me like that. It is offensive. I am happy to go over changes with you." and then, "Jane, I will not be spoken to like that." And you get up and leave.

Clarify your role with your boss and other team members. Sometimes, we're so busy looking at how we're not getting along we forget to work towards getting things together. Go to your boss and say, "My understanding is that I am supposed to do X and Jane is supposed to do Y. Is that correct?" If the answer is yes, ask the boss to confirm this with the other team members. Staff meeting is actually a great time to bring some of these things up. "Hey everybody, I just want to make sure we're all on the same page. My understanding is that I have responsibility for X. Does everyone agree with that?" You may find out that 3 other people thought they were responsible for X and no one thought they were responsible for Y. Oops. But, if everyone is sitting around the table, you can hash it out pretty quickly.

Be willing to be flexible. If you've just found out that no one wants responsibility for Y, why not give up some of your X duties and take on Y? Seriously. It's not the most glamorous, but it can remove the tensions in the group and the misunderstandings.

Be humble. If your teammate has a splendid idea, embrace it. Don't worry so much about getting the recognition for being the idea generator. Support your team members. If the decision (by either the manager or the consensus of the team) has been made and you voted the other way, give up the sour grapes and get on board. Sometime you are not going to have the best idea. Sometimes you will be wrong. Sometimes you will be right but others will think you are wrong. Sometimes, you need to accept that and support what the reality is, and that reality is the team is going forth with Jane's idea and not yours.

Image by Scott Maxwell, Flick cc 2.0