Fine Tuning

Friday, June 1, 2012 - 12:27

There's no magic dial for resolving conflict and improving poor performance. It requires careful understanding of the dynamics of internal change, writes Gerard McManus

Encounters with difficult people in the workplace are often the result of a clash of cultures rather than a clash of personalities.

The good news is the former is easier to resolve than the latter.

The not-so-good news is such resolutions require the application of judicious people-management skills and an understanding of the dynamics of internal change.

Unless you are a hermit or a deep-sea diver, it is inevitable there will be encounters with difficult people at work.

For managers or team leaders this can be doubly difficult because they have to act as judge, jury and sometimes executioner in dealing with a person who does not get on with their colleagues.

Melbourne-based leadership and management specialist Clare Coffield says the critical thing is to differentiate between the person and the situation.

"I prefer only to talk about difficult situations rather than difficult people," she said. "Personalising makes it much harder to resolve."

Every situation is different, depending on whether the person in question is a peer, a senior or a sub-ordinate. But while there are endless situational confrontations, the root cause of most is cultural clash.

And while every workplace has its own procedures, there are some broad steps that can be taken as a course of action to settle the problem. The more effectively the first steps are implemented the less likely the final steps will need to be taken.

Investigate & understand

The first critical action is to separate the issues - to tease out the difference between bad work and a lack of cultural fit.

Take demarcation issues as an example. The requirement of any new employee is to seek to assimilate and an employer to explain the culture of the organisation. However, a new employee or a person in a changed position may put their foot down and insist: "I'm not doing that, that is not my job." This may be perfectly acceptable in the public service, but not in an SME where the managing director takes out the garbage. Resolving this may take some time and communication.

The cause may be the person's experience in their most recent job; they may have come from a heavily unionised or regulated workforce. Alternatively, they may have a spouse or relation who believes working five minutes past knock-off time is exploitation and a case for overtime.

Of course, there is also behaviour that is unacceptable in any workplace, including aggression, harassment and racism, and there are laws to protect a certain level of cultural abuse. Even in small organisations, staff should know from induction or through familiarity with a firm's code of conduct or handbook when modes of interpersonal behaviour cross the line.

If the culture of a workplace is "we work hard here", then the options are to adapt or leave. If the culture is "we don't micro-manage here" and super-relaxed, then conflict is likely to arise if the new person works like a tornado and constantly hypes everyone up.

Finally, complaints have to be assessed between someone who has had a bad week and congenital troublesome behaviour over an extended period; between the trivial and serious; between gossip and innuendo and actuality.

Everybody has bad days and everybody has low periods. Grumpiness, short-temperedness and inability to perform can often be explained by a bad night's sleep, a traffic infringement just before work or an argument with a spouse. But there are also serious issues such as depression, a death or debilitating family situations.


For the next step it is crucial to rule out lack of education as the reason for a cultural clash. In other words, communication about values is required to eliminate the possibility the person in question misunderstands the new culture.

For example, an employee may have come from a military culture where protection of superiors is encouraged and problems are covered up to maintain operational effectiveness. The communication therefore needs to explain that the new culture is one of openness, honesty and of owning up: "We don't hold grudges here."

At this stage it is important to be positive and constructive. The clash may be based on a simple lack of understanding, the inability to see a different world-view, or the necessity of acting in a certain way.

If no specific complaint has been made, it is often useful to have group education sessions to explain or reinforce what is acceptable and what is not. For example, such sessions could articulate emphatically that sexual innuendo or intra-office smutty emails are not appropriate and will not be tolerated. No individual is singled out, but no one can claim they did not understand the rules.

Wait & see

Results usually don't happen overnight. Old habits are hard to break and particular cultures are sometimes difficult to grasp. Positive reinforcement is useful in encouraging a person in a certain direction: "Thanks for making an effort to come in on time this week - you made it by 9am four times out of five."

And it may not be possible for someone to adapt to a new culture completely, but still be effective in his or her work. Moving from a hierarchical culture to a democratic culture, from a casual culture to a process culture, from an internal culture to a customer-focused culture requires transition and adaptation that does not happen like turning on and off the light.

The other form of "culture shock" comes when new staff are shifted into an existing team, where a manager is appointed to oversee an existing team or where there is corporate restructure. These events can be smooth, but can also be the equivalent to being parachuted into Tokyo.

The new cultural mode has to be clearly articulated: "I don't know what went on before, but we don't tolerate lying or mistakes being hidden. It might have worked that way before, but it won't be tolerated moving forward."


If there is no breakthrough then more formalised coaching may be required. Depending on the internal HR rules, the language will need to be firmer. For example: "You have had ample time to get your head around this." "You don't seem to be on board." "Are you sure you want to be here?"

Firm deliverables have to be given. If the problem is perpetually being late for work, then a daily 9am meeting has to be scheduled. If attention to detail is the problem, then every document or product or line item being completed has to be checked. Micro-management sends out a clear message to lift or rethink. Failure to comply will result in written warning number one, precipitating the process of either severance or, hopefully, turnaround. of internal change, writes Gerard McManus.