Interpersonal conflicts: the bane of company efficiency?

Interpersonal conflicts will always be an unavoidable part of social interactions and the workplace. Why the interest in this subject?Join us for this interview with Alexandra Gerbasi, an assistant professor at Grenoble Ecole de Management, who has been studying deenergizing ties in the workplace.

Interpersonal conflicts will always be an unavoidable part of social interactions and the workplace.
Why the interest in this subject?

In the United States and Great Britain, this subject has been around for years. World leaders such as Amazon, Google, or MWH routinely solicit their teams to detect potential conflicts. Researchers and consultants use social-network analyses, both hierarchical and informal, in order to identify problem individuals. It's about studying negative interactions that drain your energy and impact company performance.

Do personal conflicts really impact company performance?

Everybody has had to deal with a bossy manager, an aggressive colleague, or an uninterested party. These interactions drain your energy and motivation. Entire departments can go off track without realizing it. Two units that are supposed to be collaborating can find themselves at odds.

However, there are distress signals you can look out for such as losses in productivity, project delays, absenteeism, and the departure of key players. The important thing is to catch and fix the problem as early as possible.

Who's responsible: the management or individuals?

It's possible for the same individual to have a positive and a negative influence on surrounding colleagues. Management is often the differentiating factor. Let's take the example of Paul, an engineer in a large oil and gas organization, who was promoted to his first management position. Despite being a well-respected engineer in his previous role, we found that his colleagues saw him as source of demotivation. His lack of managerial skills made it impossible for him to unite his team. Thankfully the problem was identified early-on and Paul was given leadership training and coaching: six months later his team was hitting their goals.

It's really up to management to recognize when individuals go from positive to negative. Truly "toxic" employees are in fact pretty rare.

How big a problem can negative interactions cause?

We all know that an unhappy client causes a lot more noise and problems than a happy one. Researchers have noted the same impact for these de-energizing ties. On average, they represent only seven percent of social interactions in a company. Yet their negative impact weighs in at four to seven times more than that of "energizing" interactions.

What solutions do you offer for companies looking to address this issue?

To assess the situation, we can, for example, use a social-network analysis or 360° feedback. The former allows us to identify negative influences throughout a company by asking everyone to give anonymous feedback. This allows companies to isolate "de-energizers" without putting them face to face with the problem.

The latter focuses on specific "de-energizers" by asking for feedback from everybody that interacts with the subject. As a result the "de-energizers" are put face-to-face with the differences between their own image and how others really see them.

Once a problem is identified, the solutions are pretty traditional. Conflict resolution, stress prevention, internal reorganization, adding "energizing" people to a demotivated team, or routine interviews with teams. Occasionally if an employee refuses to change, the only smart choice is to let them go. Simply changing their position in the company is just asking for new conflicts.