When departments operate in silos — say operations wants to streamline processes while sales seeks to please customers by customizing — the result can be repeated misunderstanding and extreme mistrust. Even otherwise reasonable employees can appear to be locked in perpetual battle for authority, resources, status, or the pure triumphant joy of being able to one-up the other.
Senior leaders often treat ongoing conflicts as just the cost of doing business in complex organizations. But the actual expense attributable to workplace conflict is much worse than most leaders suspect: an estimated $359 billion in paid hours lost annually in the U.S. alone.
And leaders who think conflict is just a normal part of organizational friction may wait for things to “sort themselves out,” or at most, direct participants to “work things out.” But neither approach is likely to succeed with conflicts that have lasted beyond a specific disagreement if harmful patterns of thinking and behavior have become entrenched. So how can you resolve lingering cross-departmental conflict? After more than 25 years, I’ve seen leaders adopt four effective strategies.
All Must Focus on the Good of the Entire Business
Departmental leaders who focus only on optimizing their own performance usually don’t see the big picture and frequently undercut the performance of the business as a whole. For instance, if a product development group is driven by positive ratings, they may be comfortable with extra materials expense and production cost. They may fight to keep all the bells and whistles while the production group is struggling to drive down overall cost per unit.
Organizational leaders should publicly acknowledge people and groups that work together for the sake of the larger good and drive common purpose, for example, by focusing the conversation on mission, vales, and customer needs. If current goals and performance requirements are indirectly causing interdepartmental friction, they may need to rework the current systems for metrics and rewards, and can share stories and recognition of initiatives and personal actions that served company goals over the convenience and ease of more partisan efforts.
Humanize All Participants
The departments you supervise won’t ever collaborate effectively if they trash-talk, stereotype or denigrate each other — and it’s much harder to do that if they get to know one another as individuals. One of my clients had a longstanding conflict between the sales and product development groups, and we began the equivalent of an ‘anthropology program’ for each department to learn about the other.
On the personal side, employees shared information about their careers and interests; on the professional side, they explained the meaning and underlying rationales for various business decisions their groups had made through the years. We had no expectation that they would become friends or even like each other. The goal was simply that they would come to understand and be open to the intentions and needs of their colleagues.
Bring in an Experienced Facilitator
It often takes an outsider to help the parties identify how their missteps or inaccurate assumptions fueled the conflict, find common ground, and repattern communications for better results. Your CHRO or professional networks are likely to have qualified recommendations if you don’t know one of these experts yourself.
It’s particularly effective if leaders from both sides have the chance to meet individually with the facilitator to establish trust prior to the group discussion. It can take multiple interactions for the groups to learn to work out both conceptual and tactical issues together.
Rebuild from Below
Sometimes the relationship between departmental leaders becomes toxic and poisons relationships throughout their departments. At several client organizations, we launched pilot programs in which lower and mid-level leaders were assigned to work on ad hoc initiatives at the direction of the executive level. As the people who were actually responsible for execution, they were more pragmatic and had more experience working things out with their colleagues, and in every case, they were able to build stronger bridges among the functional groups.
In addition, because of their new access to the executive level, the lower levels now had more information and better contextual awareness, which helped them work more efficiently and effectively. Over time, this created upward pressure on their bosses — once the work was getting done, and there were more frequent successes, the department heads had much less opportunity to spread blame and behave divisively.
There’s no quick fix for long-term persistent conflict. But there’s also no need to live with it forever. These approaches help to unpack longstanding conflicts and move the participants — and the innocent bystanders — to a more productive place.