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Volume 8 | Issue 8

Putting it in context

A message from CDC Integrated Services, LLC

Don’t Ignore the Potholes – Part I

Let your sympathies and your compassion be always with the underdog in the fight – this is magnanimity, but bet on the other one – for this is business. (Mark Twain)

No matter how well-intentioned a group’s efforts might be or how laudable the goal is, the power of cultural differences can do lasting damage to those efforts. It should surprise no one that disputes rising from cultural misunderstandings are not well understood, nor should it surprise anyone that employees are reluctant to discuss these types of disputes. Consequently, they choose a variety of temporary fixes that only alleviate the problem in the short term. For many reasons, some of which are discussed here, these conflicts are the quicksand that sinks the best of intentions.

People are learning that culture is a powerful force. Its impact on people is subtle, indirect, and yet undeniably consequential. Also, it impacts how a company or organization sees itself, and it shapes how it presents itself, its products, and its services. Most employees believe a company’s culture develops from its policies, procedures, regulations, and rules, but this is partially true. The broader culture in which companies operate exerts its influence in no less subtle and powerful ways. It is why conflicts rooted in cultural disputes have such a strong impact.

What is also true is that much of what people see in the broader culture is perceived as being good and beneficial also co-exists with non-beneficial elements. We tend to overlook because it is hard to see the many things that exist in our modern culture that are harmful to a company’s brand and, ultimately, its economic well-being. These negative impacts aren’t always immediately apparent, and because of this, company leaders need to exercise great care when adopting what popular culture favors at any given point.

In many respects, the leaders of modern companies are even less skilled than ordinary people at understanding the unintended consequences of responding to broad cultural issues. As a result, many of us experience positive and negative feedback on a wide range of topics. Some of this we actively seek, and other forms of feedback give us pause, but in either case, it is almost always immediate.

Many company leaders operate in insulated environments, and what information they receive is filtered as it moves up the organizational structure. They try to compensate for this by gathering data through surveys.

Yet, as we now know, surveys are not always up to the task of identifying the subtle yet powerful forces that operate inside the American culture.

Regardless of their known weakness, many leaders continue to rely on what surveys tell them and proceed to take positions for which the negative consequences are unknown because those consequences won’t be known for some

time. Yet, some of them are identifiable well before they become a problem. For example, one specific cultural impact began making a measurable impact more than a decade ago, and still, many leaders dismissed the potential damage from this significant cultural shift.

The reason is not hard to understand; leaders ignore this issue out of fear or ignorance. However, the loss of language discipline was recognizable long before now, and many warned about the damage degraded language would cause if not addressed.

Any of us can point to several reasons why people in the workforce today do not practice language discipline, and many of us can find examples that impacted us personally.

Out of habit, mental carelessness, or ignorance, we use words interchangeably because we think they have the same general meaning. Resolving issues, especially conflict-related matters in the workplace, is challenging enough for people who have some training and skill. However, it becomes an impossible challenge for the unskilled because the language surrounding workplace conflicts can lead them down unclear paths.

The words disagreement, argument, conflict, and dispute are synonymous for the average employee. The perception among employees that it is OK to use them interchangeably comes from the fact that no one calls them on that lack of linguistic discipline. As a result, when we focus and listen to conversations in the workplace, we’ll hear employees use these words within the same narrow spectrum, giving little attention to their differences.

What we believe versus what we know often drives conflict. If you doubt this, think about conversations we’ve all had with both immediate and extended family members. The conflict between belief and knowledge damaged many a holiday meal or vacation.

In my book, The Point of Convergence: A Path to Understanding Conflict Resolution, I wrote about myths (beliefs) about workplace conflict that endure despite what we know about the subject. Unsurprisingly, we create problems for ourselves and others when we fail to recognize that bringing our understanding of the world into the workplace can often be a source of conflict.

When faced with conflict, the challenge is to examine our traditional approach and ensure we are not adding to the problem by using outdated assumptions. Unfortunately, many times we aggravate the problem by taking the path of least resistance.

Brené Brown, a well-known sociologist, speaks about this in her book Daring Greatly. She writes, “people often silence themselves, or “agree to disagree” without fully exploring the actual nature of the disagreement, for the sake of protecting a relationship and maintaining connections.”

But when we avoid certain conversations and never make an effort to learn how the other person feels about all of the issues, we sometimes end up making assumptions that not only perpetuate but deepen misunderstandings, and that can generate resentment.”

Other myths about conflict exist, but I attempted to show with these examples that relying on one’s personal understanding of conflict is often one of the drivers behind unresolved disagreements. Other drivers exist, besides those described above, which may create situations that foster conflict.

Already I can hear someone over in the corner whispering, “Do you want a list?” That’s just it; anyone can come up with a list, but where do you start?

From my perspective, one of the key drivers, and one not given enough attention, is non-compliance with rules.  The deviation from established norms in many companies is far broader and more deeply ingrained than their executives or managers realize. Policies and procedures – the rules – generally exist for good reasons; yet, a surprising number of people are willing to bend the rules for many different reasons.

When someone takes a shortcut, it will inevitably impact someone else in the department or the organization. Modern compliance programs primarily exist because of the requirements of federal and state regulatory agencies to comply with various laws. If I may be permitted to use a metaphor, these compliance programs exist to keep the car from hitting a pothole and potentially damaging the vehicle.

However, these same compliance programs often overlook the stones that bruise a heel that person steps out of the car. In other words, individuals who deviate from the rules create conflict because they are putting rocks in the path of others.

When it comes to conflict, few people want to put themselves on the firing line (pun intended).

The fact that most employees notice the conflict happening around them is also not in question. That most go to great lengths not to get personally involved is a well-established fact. It takes an employee with unusual courage to tackle a conflict in the workplace that everyone else is ignoring.

When I sit down with a client, I use stories and relatable situations to help them feel more at ease with this subject. I sometimes use potholes in the street as a metaphor for the disagreement. A pothole is a perfect metaphor to understand the way people process beliefs.

I use this metaphor to illustrate different ideas. Sometimes I use it to talk about the dangers of taking shortcuts. I also use it to show the dangers of simply covering something up and moving on because digging down to the root of something often exposes problems people don’t want to face.

All of us see potholes in our streets every day. In some parts of the city I live in, Houston, they are more prevalent than others, and this is a common characteristic of most cities, and you can draw your conclusion as to why that is. The important fact is that you rarely get from point A to point B in a large city without encountering a pothole. What do you do? What do I do? We drive around the pothole, doing our best to avoid it.

When we pass that way again and see the repaired pothole, we can draw one of two conclusions by the repair carried out. It was either filled in with some minor reshaping and reworking of the hole; or they took the time to dig out a larger area and make a more complete repair.

If I were to take a survey, how many would see the first type of repair compared to the second type? Most of us recognize intuitively that a more detailed repair is necessary for many instances, but we rarely see the more extensive kind of repair.

Municipalities are inherently lazy in this way and wait until multiple potholes have degraded an area of the roadway before they take more extensive action.

 In our political systems, both local and national, powerful inertia exists to do what is right when needed because it would expose the fact that they didn’t do it right the first time. In part two of this article, I will identify how this same inertia is a significant obstacle in resolving workplace conflicts rooted in cultural differences.

Food for Thought: Just because they’re not on your road doesn’t  mean they’ve gotten lost.  (The Dalai Lama)

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