How do you cure employee conflict? (Part 2 of 3)
8 February 2022
I’ve usually found that three things can contribute to employee conflict – misunderstandings between employees (yesterday’s post, part 1), unclear job descriptions, and processes that don’t work well.
Today let’s focus on unclear job descriptions.
To begin, abandon all hope that a job description will always perfectly define anyone’s job, because a business is a living organism, populated by other living organisms (that’s us), and jobs change relentlessly. The best possible case is that a job description is like a Balance Sheet – a snapshot in time that represents a complex situation.
That being said, we can get job descriptions close enough to keep them from contributing to tensions between employees.
How do bad job descriptions increase the likelihood of employee conflict?
First, think of job descriptions as something like a contract between employee and employer – they describe what is expected from both parties, and like a contract, both the employee and the business should have a clear understanding what the job entails.
Trouble starts if that understanding is broken, and what the employee actually does or is asked to do is different than the job description. The employee then usually feels that the job description is no longer valid, that he or she is being taken advantage of, or that the business hasn’t lived up to the promise of the job. Many other employees get frustrated with someone else’s broken job description because they assume (and rightly so) that an employee is supposed to do the job that he or she was hired for.
This is where complaining often starts, as well as workarounds and keeping people out of the loop. Conflict usually follows.
Secondly, unrecognized scope creep that exceeds responsibilities in job descriptions can quickly create disgruntled employees. Adding more work to the employee’s duties or not giving the employee the authority to execute his or her responsibilities are common culprits.
And disgruntled employees are less likely to get along with others, never mind put honest effort into collaboration, creativity, or “go the extra mile.”
The third way that poor job descriptions cause conflict: many job descriptions don’t actually describe how an employee works with others or what his or her part is in the machine. While many job descriptions say that an employee will “work closely with the Head of XYZ” or that the employee is expected to be “a critical source of relevant informational feedback as to the efficacy of proposed processes,” it’s left to the employee to decipher the corporate double-speak and figure out if that means a daily report, weekly meeting, to be on call outside of office hours, or just be ready to answer the occasional question. And what if other employees interpret “work closely” differently? You guessed it – conflict.
What can you do?
Improve the way new job descriptions are written. Don’t be afraid to make them more clear, simpler, and possibly shorter. Define or replace corporate lingo with sentences that everyone can understand. Albert Einstein: “If you can’t explain it to a six-year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”
Get on a regular schedule of comparing job descriptions and what an employee actually does. Department heads, other managers with direct reports should do the same. The goal with these regular comparisons is not to overwhelm the HR department with more work. Instead, the goal is to short-circuit the possibility of conflict that comes from confusion.
Much of the confusion that easily turns into resentment can be solved. A simple email to an employee that says “after our meeting and looking at your job description, I suggest adding X and removing Y – does that make sense to you?” If the employee agrees, then alert any others who are affected. “Adele is no longer producing the monthly report, instead the information is on our intranet – let me know if there are any problems with this.”
The emails can be used to change the formal job description with HR during annual reviews.
Lastly, every employee should have visibility on how your business machine works. They should know where they fit, what they do and why they do it. Some employees are satisfied with knowing only direct tasks, but engagement and productive employees usually have more curiosity about their part because they would like to do it better.
Part 1 – how you can solve misunderstandings between employees
Part 3 – how process affects employee relationships
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