I have two attributes that set me up for conflict with my current colleagues at SAP.
First, I worked in small companies for my entire career leading up to 2012, when I joined SAP, which is a huge company, and like any huge company, has its share of bureaucracy that was absent from my previous workplaces. Second, I spent most of my career as a journalist, which trained me to be vigilant about whether what people say is what they really mean – especially when it comes to marketing, which is the function I work in in SAP.
But after three years working here, I’ve decided that both of those assumptions are completely wrong.
The worst culprit in workplace conflict is technology – no matter the size of the company. There are five ways that technology (current technology, anyway) leads to work conflict.
- Institutionalizes the memo mindset. If you’re an old fart like me, you remember a time when the internet was something being hatched by DARPA and there was no voice mail. If bosses wanted to send a one-to-many communication, they used the memo.
But bosses knew that employees hated getting these stilted, impersonal communications and that memos usually signaled that something bad was coming and that the boss was too scared to tell them face-to-face in a meeting. Plus, memos took a long time to produce and distribute so lazy bosses tended to avoid them. E-mails are just like memos, except unlike memos, they are easy to produce and distribute. Just type angry, pick a distribution list, and let it fly.
- Leaves time to invent meaning between the lines. Research has found that e-mail communications strip away trust, and lack of trust lights a can of Sterno under employee relationships, starting a slow burn that can lead to overheated conversations.
However, e-mail is not the only culprit here. Blogs, social media, and even videos have much more power to offend people. In social media the conflict can become exponentially worse because it can be crowd sourced.
- Slices the workday into impenetrable chunks. Sometimes I wind up writing an e-mail about a subject that I know would come across better in a conversation but which doesn’t rise to the importance of a meeting invite. Calendar apps have taken away our permission to just pick up the phone and chat with a colleague.
- Culturally clueless. One of the most important institutions in Japanese culture is the concept of honne and tatemae, which translate roughly to public face and private face. Historians trace the phenomenon to Japan’s history as a crowded island that needed to avoid conflict. There are at least 16 different ways in Japanese to use the word “I” to describe the relationship between speaker and listener. So clearly, the Japanese have been working on this idea of public and private meaning for a long time and get it. Americans? Not so much. In fact, nothing angers an American more than a colleague who sends an e-mail that doesn’t match with what that colleague said in a meeting or even in private.
- Makes it easy to create stir extended conflict. It’s way too easy to put people on a cc list in e-mail that the recipient doesn’t know, thereby seeding mistrust. It’s also easy for the people on the cc list to lack the context for judging the communication properly. Cc is also sometimes taken as license to contact the original recipient with opinions or orders that seem to come out of nowhere.
- Calls for skills many people don’t have. Most people are not natural writers. The smartest engineers may not be able to write a decent e-mail or tweet. And writing isn’t the only skill needed to survive technological communications. From infancy, we are trained to respond to social cues. Videoconferencing or any sort of public speaking makes many people nervous. They give off social cues that viewers automatically pick up, which can lead to a negative bias, which can lead to conflict.
So if all these technologies are so dehumanizing how do we fix them? In a word: context.
Online communities have taken one step towards defusing potential conflict by requiring participants to fill out extensive biographies and list their experience and interests. Few companies have followed suit, however. And there is so much more that could be done from a technological point of view to ease employees’ minds about the intent of a colleague. Providing more and better context will be critical to the future of work, especially given the high degree of disenchantment among employees today.
See other ways companies can make employees happier and more productive in the in-depth report How to Fix the Crisis in Employee Engagement.