Three women were about to be fired by the Vice-President of Human Relations. The CEO intervened and asked me if I could find out what was causing the problems since these women had previously been good employees. Now, they were taking frequent breaks and were often not available to respond to queries that needed their response.
When talking with the women I learned nothing useful. However, one day I walked into the area in which they were working. Oh! I now realized what was creating the problem. These women were working in a large windowless room and someone had piled a bunch of boxes in the room, using the extra space as storage. Without realizing it, the women had become claustrophobic and needed to leave the room frequently – thus the extra breaks.
We had facilities remove the boxes. I went to a poster store and bought some large posters, one of a seascape and another of a mountain with a lake and waterfall. We hung these on the walls. Problem solved.
In another case, there was a cold war between a group of administrative workers and the men in the engineering department. Why? Well, the path between the conference room and the engineering department weaved through the area where these administrative workers had their desks. If one of the engineers was paged, he’d stop at the most convenient desk to take the call, often accidentally walking away with pen and paper from that desk.
People are territorial. They don’t like having their space invaded, or their tools taken. This was like torture since it happened all too often.
My solution: We did some furniture re-arranging. We moved the desks so that there was a clear uninterrupted path between the conference room and the engineering department and placed a small table with phone, pens and pads on the path. No longer were the administrative people annoyed or interrupted.
This reminds me of another situation where administrative assistants and engineers were at war. This turned out to be a major communication problem at a very large electrical company.
Apparently the women, many of whom had master’s degrees and all of whom were originally from the Philippines complained to upper management that they were disrespected and often ignored by these men.
I was brought in to solve the communication problems….or lack of communication as it were. Again, observing rather than pre-summing gave me the answers.
The women were excessively polite – as was common in their culture. So, instead of merely asking for something by saying, “May I have the documents by tomorrow?” They would say something along the lines of (this is a slight exaggeration to make the point) “Excuse me, please forgive me for interrupting, I’m sorry to ask, but I do need to have the documents. Do you mind giving them to me by tomorrow? I’m sorry to have rushed you.”
All these words and the meaning of the sentence was lost. All these words and the men, always in a hurry tuned the women out.
I created and implemented a series of communication workshops. We taught the women to be more succinct and the men to respect cultural differences. Both groups worked at making changes and became more understanding and cooperative with each other.
Conclusion: Most of the conflict in the workplace occurs because of minor problems or misunderstandings that can be cured without making any one “right” or “wrong”. Instead of looking to punish (called sanction in the workplace) we need to take the complaints seriously and look for solutions not blame.