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Volume 8 | Issue 12

Putting it in context

A message from CDC Integrated Services, LLC

A Year-End Perspective

A Year-End Perspective

The new work environments being created will not eliminate the actions and behaviors that drive conflict. While conflicts in this new environment may, on the surface have a different look and feel, they will have many of the same drivers.

Of more immediate concern is the need to recognize that the old norms are gone. They are not temporarily suspended with the idea that these prior norms will, at some point, be dusted off and be brought back into the mainstream workplace.

At the risk of repeating what many others are saying, a new world is here for the American worker. The workplace is not what it once was and will never be again. In America and around the world a wide array of changes unfolded in dramatic fashion, and will continue to do so. Some of these changes started before the pandemic, and events simply accelerated them at almost a NASCAR speed.

Other changes, not on anyone’s radar, suddenly became necessary, and the disruptions and dislocations are enormous and consequential in ways not yet fully understood. One thing we do know is that our culture has not yet assimilated many of these changes, and the impact has been jarring, and sometimes violent.

Within these new environments, familiar types of conflicts will re-appear, along with conflicts that reflect the highly unstable environments many companies are working through with differing levels of success. Many environments have become more discordant than is necessary because company leaders are failing to focus on what made their companies successful in the first place.

Company leaders who ignore this jarring dissonance, or see it as useful prop to find favor with the flavor of the day that runs through the American mainstream, run the risk of alienating their employees and their customer base.  This leadership induced discord is leading some companies to implement policies that find favor with politicians or activists of one kind or another in the hope of achieving some poorly defined goal.

Some of the conflicts my company is being called in to assist in the resolution of is originating from conflicts over ill-defined goals and objective. Some of these disputes escalated very quickly; catching many management teams by surprise. Managers, pulled in two or more directions, and catching grief from both above and below, do not always take the high road.

Do I exaggerate? Look around your own industry, and you will see that employees are packing their bags and quitting. They are already calling it the Great Resignation. In some ways it is easy to understand. When companies forget that their sole purpose is to deliver a product that meets the customer’s needs, and do so in a cost-effective, safe, and reliable manner, these companies will suffer from this failure to focus.

Add to this the profoundly misguided idea that a company can order an employee to submit to training programs founded on assumed guilt/assumed responsibility, and further, ask these same employees to subject his/her person to medical experiments as a condition of employment; it should come as no surprise that employees will not participate in such compulsory demands without significant pushback.

More important than any specific dispute, is the fact that many disputes find one group inside a company pitted against another. While not unknown in the pre-pandemic era, group conflicts did not occur that often. That is not the case now.

The new drivers of conflict alluded to above, when added to the traditional workplace stresses that drive conflict, are among the many reason that form part of the Great Resignation.  I am convinced that the events that occurred during the pandemic acted as a catalyst (a term I’ve used before). I am equally convinced that many companies sowed the seeds for the Great Resignation, and set the stage for this mass migration away from old jobs to something else before the pandemic did its damage.

By the summer of 2019, social science data was disclosing that across many companies and multiple industries, employees had become disengaged from their jobs on a regular basis. Data showed that on any given week, as many as 34% to 45% of employees focused on other things while at work for more than 2.5 hours at a time. Some surveys indicated that in more than a few companies more than 50% of employees would disconnect from their work during an average week.

In some industries, this chronic disengagement during the workweek was having a significant impact on productivity, and companies were spending a great deal of time and money trying to get their employees re-engaged. Surprisingly, it took the disruptions and dislocations of the pandemic to expose one of the key reasons employees had become increasingly disconnected from their work.

The pandemic exposed in very clear ways that the traditional relationship between supervisor and employee no longer existed. This statement might leave many of you asking, what change? Yet, it happened.

It wasn’t dramatic, or of such a seismic nature that would make it obvious, but nonetheless, by the end of 2019, it was baked into many companies’ way of doing business. If you, my faithful readers think I am wandering in the weeds, I am not. The breakdown of the supervisor/employee relationship was, before the pandemic, a frequent source of conflict which I and others in my company had to deal with.

I will start with some basic anecdotal information. Many human resource departments collect information on employee turnover. These departments gather this information and slice and dice it in a variety of ways to gather data they then use to provide the company’s leadership with information on a range of issues.

One thing I learned from my work resolving workplace conflict is that roughly 50% of employees who leave a company do so because of unresolved conflict with their supervisor. Allow me to emphasize this, ½ of all employees that quit, did so because they could not get along with their supervisor.

We are all aware that more than a few books and movies mock the relationship between employees and supervisors, but for many decades supervisor provided a crucial and positive link between the line employee and “upper” management. Previously, the supervisor was a seasoned employee, knowledgeable about the products and services the company provided, and experienced at exercising judgement across a wide range of issues.

Beginning about two decades ago, a shift occurred where companies began to speak about corporate responsibility regarding a range of socio-economic issues. In the balance between maintaining a focus on the core of their business, and the new directives, the new directives gradually took on greater emphasis.  Instead of pushing back against issues that distracted from a company’s primary purpose, many CEO’s and boards of directors caved to these outside pressures.

The downward pressure from boards of directors and C-suite executives created a pressure point in the organizational structure – the supervisor. At first, these external issues represented a minor distraction from the supervisor’s primary goal of executing the company’s core competencies for the benefit of the company and its customers.

Over the past two decades, these outside socio-economic issues increased to a significant degree; to the point of impacting and disrupting two key principles that undergirded the supervisor/employee relationship.

Human resource professionals and others found the pre-pandemic workplace increasing challenged by the breakdown between engagement and productivity. In retrospect one of the challenges is easy to spot, while the second is more subtle. The first element creating a disconnect between worker and supervisor, and which lead to the productivity challenges that became so obvious in late 2019, was self-inflicted.

As the soup bowl of socio-economic acronyms grew larger the first and strongest pushback was from the supervisors who, because of their knowledge and skill, recognized the impact these initiatives had on employee morale and productivity.

Supervisors who pushed back found themselves being criticized for their lack of commitment, and they were forced to acquiesce or suffer harm to their careers. Many chose to quit and move to more friendly environments. This corps of seasoned, skilled employees was gradually replaced by people more receptive to pursuing the company’s socio-economic initiatives and more willing to demand that employees engage in these initiatives – without losing their focus on doing their job.

Regardless of these internal stresses, companies continued to expand internal initiatives built around this soup bowl of acronyms. And it was in this environment where employees and supervisors no longer trusted each other that the pandemic arrived, and we still don’t know how this is going to shake out.

What is certain is that the voluntary resignation of an estimated five (5) million employees across multiple industries sends a clear signal that business as usual as to traditional manager/supervisor/employee relationships will no longer work. It is clear employees will no longer suffer in silence in response to pressures and demands that do not directly impact their ability to perform their work. Nor are they willing to be “blamed” for what happens beyond the factory’s gate.

What is also certain is that the relationship between employee and supervisor is still being transformed, and the people least aware of this transformation are those occupying the C-suite offices.

Food for Thought:  “All this was new to me. Life takes us by surprise and orders us to move towards the unknown – even when we don’t want to and we think we don’t need to.” (Paul Coelho)

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