Did you hear the one about the stressed-out business executive who walked into the doctor’s office complaining about terrible nightmares?
“It’s awful,” the exec tells his doctor. “Some nights, I imagine I’m a teepee facing incredibly strong winds, rain, and snow. I’m all alone on the edge of a cliff.”
The exec continues, “Other times, I’m not a teepee, but a wigwam that’s about to get destroyed by a raging wildfire.” Then, he finally pleads, “I just don’t know what to do anymore, doc. Can you please help me?”
At this point, the doctor leans back and calmly replies, “The problem is that you need to learn how to relax. Clearly, you’re just two tents.”
Get it? No? Well, maybe you’re “too tense.”
But seriously, the problem of tension in the workplace has been around for generations, and it’s not going to disappear any time soon.
Any sociologist will tell you that when you gather a group of individuals together in the same place — each with their own beliefs, ambitions, talents, and insecurities — there’s bound to be some friction. Here are four common causes of workplace tension:
1. Timing Is Everything (Early Birds vs. Night Owls)
The time that co-workers spend in the office often becomes a source of animosity among employees. Here, perceptions become reality. Workers and managers who arrive before other employees and then leave right at 5 p.m. may be perceived as not pulling their weight. The same can be said for late workers who are seen as slackers for “coming in whenever they want.”
2. King of the Mountain (Co-worker vs. Co-worker)
Another common source of tension in organizations comes from power struggles between employees. These range from co-workers competing for the same promotion to those fighting for the opportunity to lead the same project to even those gunning for their boss’ job.
3. Who Gets the Credit? (Leadership vs. Team)
When employees feel like they’re not appreciated or recognized for contributing to the success of the company, their confidence in their own abilities often declines — while their distrust of management increases. Managers who routinely take credit for their teams’ successes often face difficulties motivating employees down the road. This self-serving management style can quickly destroy morale and lead to product or service quality issues.
4. The Battle of Us and Them (HR vs. Employees)
Although HR employees are generally perceived as the peacekeepers of an organization, they can sometimes be the root cause of a dysfunctional work environment. For example, tensions can rise if HR suddenly institutes cookie-cutter policies or changes procedures.
Is It Malice or Miscommunication?
In a very small number of cases, I encountered a corporate framework that was intentionally developed to create an atmosphere that encouraged internal competition, subtle and overt clashes, and ongoing confrontation between employees. These were generally hyper-aggressive, sales-driven businesses with high employee turnover and very little management support.
More often, tensions and feelings of mistrust fester and grow in organizations not as a result of some specific action or directive, but when company policies are ambiguous, outdated, or rarely enforced.
To establish a constructive working environment, business leaders and managers throughout the organization must provide a clear set of expectations for their employees. These should be consistent with the overall goals and objectives of the company.
Employees won’t follow the rules if they don’t understand them or if they feel like they’re counterproductive to achieving their own personal success.
Tension Is Everywhere — Deal With It
No matter the size or age of your company, the simple truth is that some amount of tension in the workplace is unavoidable.
We’re all human, and humans are far from perfect when working well with others. Look around: Do you see any of your employees singing, “I love you. You love me. We’re a happy family,” all day long? Probably not. And that’s OK.
The truth is that most companies can and do operate successfully somewhere in the middle.
Don’t Fight It — Direct It
The most important thing for managers and company executives to do is to first accept that tensions between employees will always be a part of an organization’s culture.
With this in mind, company leaders must be on the lookout for potential flashpoints within the organization and then take immediate action to diffuse those situations when they arise.
Moving forward, it’s important to create an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect by developing a progressive corporate structure. Establishing workflow, reporting processes, and channels of communication to limit the number of uncomfortable situations that occur in the first place is also an important step.
Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing
A model that I have successfully used for many years to help enhance team performance in organizations is a process that psychologist Bruce Tuckman first penned in his 1965 article, “Developmental Sequence in Small Groups.”
In the article, Tuckman outlined a process where members of a group achieve success by forming, storming, norming, and performing the necessary steps to complete the task at hand efficiently and with minimal friction within the group.
The key is to communicate a very clear set of objectives at the beginning of the task and allow the group to work through smaller issues as they come up.
When employees understand that they’re all working toward the same goal and will receive the same rewards as every other employee, they realize that more can be accomplished in a shorter amount of time when everyone works together.
And that’s no joke.
Ambrose Conroy is the founder of Seraph, as well as a member of its executive team. Seraph works with clients to transform, relocate, or restructure their business operations. Seraph consultants bring experience in exploiting emerging markets, wringing profit from troubled operations, and accelerating product development. Ambrose is a hands-on management consultant and corporate problem solver who regularly works with leading international companies in the automotive, aerospace, energy infrastructure, and medical technology/device sectors.
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