How to improve communication at work with tense teams
In my role, I spend a lot of my time running Pulse Checks—engaging in open and honest conversations with teams about what they most need to deliver, develop, connect, and thrive. Having difficult conversations at work is hard, and you need to be fully activated to make progress.
One of my favorite things about running Pulse Checks is seeing the leader’s face when I share the results and recommendations back with them. Almost always, they’re bracing for recommendations that will cost millions and take months to implement.
Also, almost always, they’re surprised by how many low-hanging pieces of fruit are right there for the grabbing.
Because in nearly every organization, there are small irritants that everyone deals with—things that frustrate us, slow us down, or inhibit the quality of our work. And yet, they’re so commonplace. It’s just always been that way. So rather than solving them, we ignore, grumble, slap a Band-Aid on it, and just deal with the frustration.
Difficult conversations at work: A call to action
One thing I see over and over is this angry, cranky tension between teams. It irks and irritates and drives resentment while also inhibiting collaboration, efficiency, and customer, client, or patient outcomes.
This year, I’m putting my foot down. I want us all to band together and decide it’s time to solve this one. And move forward and feel happier and more productive.
Are you with me?
Today let’s talk about how to turn this friction into productivity and even a bit of collaborative delight…
1. Start by naming the problem.
We have to begin by recognizing these spots of tension for what they are. To recognize there are 2 (or more) sides to every story of why a thing didn’t happen the way it should have.
Like in a professional services firm. I’ll talk to the Sales team who says, “Our job is to capture the customers’ timelines, needs, and specifications which we then pass off to Client Services. Who totally ignores it all!”
Then I’ll talk to the Client Services team who says, “We get all these batty requests and specifications from Sales who have no regard for how much complexity they’re asking for. They only care about making their numbers…by dumping all the responsibility on us.”
Or in a healthcare clinic. I’ll talk to the Patient Registration team who says, “We have so many doctors here, and each one expects us to have their patients fill out their forms and follow their process. Each one is different. It’s impossible for us to keep track, and ultimately the patients get frustrated by how messy the check-in feels.”
Then I’ll talk to the doctors who say, “Why is it so hard for Registration to manage such a simple intake process? Once the patient gets to my office, I have to start collecting their information from scratch. I wish they would just do their jobs.”
In these examples, everyone is right. And wrong. The problem is we’re all making assumptions based on what we see and experience. But we miss the chance to consider what’s happening on the other side of the wall.
We default to pointing fingers. But we have to start to raise these issues up. To get really specific about the points of pain or breakdown. This is where a solution will begin.
So now it’s your turn. Are you having beef with another team or colleague? Rather than letting it fester, start by just calling it out. We can’t solve what we can’t see. You can have these difficult conversations at work!
Is your team struggling to get things done because no one is willing to lead the difficult conversations at work? You might just need a stinky fish. Learn how to use this simple, fun tool to spark the very conversation your team just needs to have by checking out this additional episode of Modern Mentor. Listen in the following player:
2. Have a fingers-down conversation
As in – no pointing. Just talking. Openly and safely.
A lot of the grumbling and resentment happens in private. Sales talks to Sales. Doctors talk to doctors. No one’s talking across the aisle. Which means no one’s expanding their understanding of why these things might be happening.
In the course of a Pulse check, one of these open conversations is often the first step I recommend to a leader managing feuding teams.
Because while each team blames the other for incompetence and apathy, almost never is this what’s going on. The real problem is always a lack of understanding about what’s happening on the other side of the wall.
So I encourage leaders to bring the warring teams together for a share. I often facilitate these to ensure we’re creating safe spaces grounded in sharing and learning—not finger-pointing and profanity.
The goal here isn’t a kumbaya moment but just a bit of understanding and empathy for the situation on the other side of the wall.
When Sales can understand the pain of implementation of all their promises, when Client Services understands the pressure of wanting to meet client needs—we can all start to move slowly away from rage and blame and into a zone of compassion. Which sets the stage for resolution.
3. Define your non-negotiable outcomes
The next step is to ask and answer—with the end in mind—what absolutely must happen, and where can we be flexible?
Like in our healthcare clinic, certain pieces of patient information must be collected upfront so the doctors can diagnose and treat. But maybe how that information is captured—what forms and fields—can be negotiated.
In professional services, maybe Sales has to promise the delivery of a product to the customer. But perhaps there are standard windows of delivery rather than the customer always dictating that to their whim.
So, your turn. As you sit with your professional frenemy—what is the outcome you both know needs to happen? Start there. Everything else can be negotiated.
4. Find your compromises
As in—what can you do for them and what can they do for you?
In that Professional Services firm, I loved seeing some of the agreements these two teams were finally able to make—while letting the vitriol and frustration go. Here’s where they landed:
The teams agreed—together—on standardized timelines. From order to delivery. Sales would stop making promises the client side could never implement, and Client Services had to understand the urgency and challenge themselves with a bit more speed. If a customer was really demanding an exception to the timeline, Sales agreed to run it by Client Service before making any promises. And they could only make 2 exceptions per month. Client Service agreed to review their processes each quarter looking for new efficiencies. And if they found any, Sales would be the immediate beneficiary.
Ultimately, everyone ended up winning here. Each team suddenly felt a partnership where they used to feel resentment. And the customers always knew what they were getting, and they got it more consistently.
So your turn. Where is there a possibility of compromise between you and someone who may be working harder than you’ve given them credit for?