Two Ways to Fix Hidden Workplace Conflict

BY C. Lee Smith
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On the surface, everything might seem fine in your sales department. But when did you last check for hidden workplace conflict? Your reps may have pulled together earlier this year in the face of the pandemic. They may have supported each other and the organization because they battled the outside threat that COVID-​19 posed.

As we settle into the new normal, which includes spending more time physically apart, are you checking for hidden workplace conflict? Problems between co-​workers that existed before the pandemic are likely still present. But these problems may be manifesting themselves in different ways. And the strain of working in a remote location may be generating new conflict that isn’t obvious at first glance. Left unchecked, this conflict will impact loyalty and engagement.

Solicit Feedback

In a recent Kellogg Insight podcast, organization experts suggest that managers poll their team members on a regular basis, perhaps quarterly. The goal of the project is to encourage sales professionals to share their workplace frustrations in a written list. Perhaps one of your reps is aggravated about having to make calls to clients who are late paying their bills. Over time, they’ve tried to ignore requests from accounts receivable clerks who want their help. And maybe they don’t want you to know their trying to dodge the ball. 

When you take the time to understand this situation, you can also encourage your reps to look at the conflict more objectively. They may claim to dislike the clerk who keeps demanding their help. In truth, it’s more likely that they don’t want to be in the uncomfortable position of dunning a client who they later hope to upsell. Work with your reps and with the supervisor in the accounting department. Develop a solution that’s acceptable to everyone.

Own Your Mistakes

In other cases, hidden workplace conflict may be the direct result of your actions. In every organization, team members compete. They want to stand out so they can get a promotion. They want to be the chief rainmaker and earn the most money. 

When you give one individual a change in title or publicly reward them with a bonus, the other members notice. You've changed the state of equilibrium. Research shows that the rest of your team will scramble to get the best position in the new social hierarchy. ‘Status is socially conferred and is typically an unspoken consensual agreement over the relative amount of respect, esteem and regard employees have for one another.’

When you upset the hierarchy, you create conflict. Team members may form new cliques or become ‘nonverbally aggressive.’ To avoid this outcome, be more transparent with your team. Explain why you are giving the team member this special distinction. You can also solicit the opinions of a few team members before you make the announcement. When you include in them in the process, you validate their social standing. In return, they will have a more positive response to the change you’re making. 

Nearly 40% of sales reps have left an organization because they felt nobody cared about them. Don't let this happen in your organization. Look for and address obvious and hidden workplace conflict. These actions will help to keep your reps engaged.