Sometimes the root cause of a chronic incivility problem is not necessarily what one would expect.
Lack of role clarity is a surprisingly common (and usually overlooked) trigger of workplace incivility. When you are unclear where your role begins and ends in relation to that of your colleague, resentments and negative perceptions emerge. All too often at Bar-David Consulting we have been called in to assist with conflict resolution or workplace incivility issues, only to discover that the problems are rooted in confusion about roles.
Here’s how it works: Francesca needs to include information about, say, customer complaints in her monthly report to her supervisor. She believes that Nick is responsible for bringing this information to her attention (that’s how it used to work for years with Al, Nick’s predecessor). Nick, on the other hand, legitimately believes that it is Francesca’s job to send him a reminder close to the end of the month.
When Nick fails to supply her with the information and the month is about to end, Francesca gets upset. She discusses this with a couple of colleagues. (She refers to it as “venting” but if you were there listening as a fly on the wall, you would know that it sounds much more like “gossip” which in itself is uncivil.) She then approaches Nick with a request to provide the information. Her tone is — you guessed it! — irritated and impatient.
The perceived uncivil manner in which Francesca approaches him upsets Nick. He feels belittled and goes right into Velcro-land. He provides Francesca with the information and adds a snarky comment, just to even out those imaginary justice ledgers. They both leave the interaction mad and wanting to get even. Francesca rushes to seek further collegial support through a bit of healthy venting.
The next time around, both Francesca and Nick enter the interaction in a state of agitation and ready for war. More incivility ensues, and now more people are brought into the fold through gossip and observation of the dynamics at play. Before long, Francesca and Nick are no longer on speaking terms. When they need to communicate with each other, they do so by using sticky notes.
By the way, if you’re wondering where the manager is in all this—that indeed is the 64-million dollar question! Had the manager been more observant and proactive, things would not have come to this.
So, what’s the solution?
Whether you are a manager dealing with problems on the team or if you are the person suffering from tension and frustration with a colleague, begin by ensuring that roles are clearly defined. Consider asking questions such as:
“Help me understand: when this type of process happens, what is your understanding of who is responsible for what? What exactly are you responsible for? What do you think your colleague’s part is? Are there overlaps? Do you have a really clear understanding of what everyone’s deliverables are on this?”
As childish as it may sound, territory is important to us adults. Territorial wars often stem from minor misunderstandings that add up to a big deal — a molehill becomes an overwhelming mountain.
My suggestion is: don’t let it happen to you, or around you. Clarify roles, then figure it out from there.
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