managemnet company strategy managemanet How to Proactively Defuse Tension on Your Team

How to Proactively Defuse Tension on Your Team

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As a chief people officer, I have seen firsthand how unaddressed and unresolved interpersonal tensions and toxic behavior can lead to organizational failure. A subtle racial slight, an argument over a project’s deliverables, or gossip over perceived unfair advantages can negatively impact team performance, collaboration, and productivity, create operational friction among teams, and cause employees to feel disengaged, distrustful, and unmotivated. These issues can arise due to various factors, including differences in personality and perspectives, racial, class, and gender privilege, work and communication styles, power imbalances, and/or lack of transparency and clarity over work processes and business goals.

While interpersonal conflict at work is inevitable, we often forget our own agency to root out problems and stop them from escalating swiftly with empathy, accountability, self-awareness, and courage. Doing so can feel scary and dangerous, especially when you’re a junior team member or belong to one or more underrepresented groups.

Recently, a young woman of color, a rising star at my organization, expressed reservations about joining a new team that could significantly advance her career. During a conversation with the team’s manager, she was troubled when he made an insensitive remark about what he perceived as racial segregation of employees at a social event. Concerned about her career and the potential for a racially hostile or uncomfortable work environment where this manager may not respect her identity and experiences, she sought guidance from her HR business partner, who directed her to me.

We discussed her desired outcome of joining the team while holding the manager accountable for the impact of his words and encouraging improvements in his behavior. I offered her the choice of addressing the issue directly or receiving support from me in the conversation, prioritizing her safety and dignity. After careful consideration, she chose to engage directly. I coached her on how to express herself confidently and thoughtfully. Subsequently, she shared a positive outcome—the manager demonstrated empathy, offered a genuine apology, and committed to openly acknowledging the dismissive comments with the entire team.

Based on the experience of this employee and many others I’ve coached throughout my career, here are five actions that you can take to reduce or stop interpersonal tensions and toxic behavior if you witness or experience harm in the workplace:

1. Identify the root cause of the tension.

When dealing with interpersonal friction in the workplace, the first step is to identify the root causes — the true sources of tension. In her book, The Fearless Organization, Amy Edmondson explores the cost of a lack of psychological safety in organizations, including toxic work environments, burnout, and human capital loss.

Removing unhealthy behaviors that reduce individuals’ and teams’ safety, comfort, and performance requires us to face what needs to be changed. Power imbalances and differences of opinion over how to run a project, which partners to engage with, and performance measures are often the root cause of misunderstandings, disagreements, and collaboration collapse. In those situations, junior employees, women of color, and underrepresented employees are often afraid to speak up about conflict for fear of retaliation or being judged negatively.

In the above example, the root cause of tension was the manager’s racially insensitive comment, leading to concerns about a potentially hostile or uncomfortable work environment, lack of respect, and disregard for the lived experiences of this woman of color and others. By approaching such situations with support, empathy, and courage, we can uncover and address the underlying causes of tensions and prevent them from negatively impacting individuals’ well-being and professional development. It’s important to recognize that this approach may not always be feasible or safe. In this case, the employee trusted that I would intervene if the conversation veered off course.

2. Seek to understand, not just be understood.

Professional relationships are human relationships fraught with shared misunderstandings. A wrongly placed, unintentional word in a stressful moment, especially those fed by gender and racial biases, can drive a deep wedge between coworkers. To build shared understanding, it is important to hold space for others’ opinions, empathize with complex and nuanced situations, and take responsibility for nurturing a sense of safety and trust among colleagues.

In this instance, the manager embraced the opportunity to connect, learn, and grow, seeking to comprehend the impact of their words and actions instead of adopting a defensive stance. This response demonstrated a willingness to acknowledge mistakes and make an effort to change without fearing appearing incompetent or being canceled. Rather than deflecting or bemoaning leadership challenges, the manager prioritized their team’s well-being.

By helping the manager see and understand her concerns, the employee demonstrated a remarkable level of empathy. Though it would have been fair for her to write off this manager, she recognized the opportunity for growth and engaged in a constructive dialogue. This approach allowed her to assert her agency in addressing the manager’s lack of awareness regarding insensitive comments. She chose to model a collaborative approach where others could learn and improve.

Their interaction vividly demonstrated the transformative power of open, safe, and trusting communication, highlighting the remarkable potential for positive change when both parties approach tricky, uncomfortable conversations with an authentic intention to understand and be understood.

3. Assess the right time to intervene.

Saying something and not saying something are both choices that carry profound consequences.

Sometimes, an intervention can occur in the moment or shortly after that. If you’re alone with someone who has just shared an offensive, denigrating, or derogatory comment and feel at risk of saying something that may be misunderstood or weaponized against you, wait until there are others around that can offer support or report it to HR or an anonymous hotline. Alternatively, if you feel comfortable, you can try saying, “When you said ___, I felt ____” or “I’m sure you didn’t mean it, but that comment didn’t land well on me.” The person receiving the feedback may need to be made aware of the impact of their words and actions. Waiting too long risks negative feelings lingering and growing within yourself and others.

Had the employee not shared her concerns, or had the manager responded defensively and retaliated, it would have resulted in a missed opportunity to cultivate a healthy and thriving workplace environment. Moreover, it could have perpetuated a culture of fear and burdened her and other employees who share similar fears, ultimately hindering their growth and well-being throughout their careers.

4. Ask for help.

As I advanced in my career, I yearned for leaders who would use their position of authority to challenge toxic behavior. As I assumed leadership roles myself, I realized the responsibility fell on me to exemplify the behaviors I desired.

If you lack guidance from a manager or leader on navigating tricky situations or your organization’s conflict resolution, grievance, and disciplinary procedures, turn to your HR team. I understand the hesitation in reaching out, especially if your relationship with HR isn’t strong. Nevertheless, HR is there to advocate for employee voice, agency, and safety. They can assist you in gathering information, understanding root causes, and determining appropriate actions. An HR partner can facilitate constructive dialogue, coach you and others involved, and find proactive solutions to address behavioral issues. It’s important to approach this option carefully, as it may intensify tensions or discomfort among team members.

According to Women in the Workplace 2022, LeanIn and McKinsey’s annual report about the state of women in corporate America, women overall, and Black women and women with disabilities in particular, frequently experience microaggressions at work, such as having their judgment questioned or receiving criticism for their demeanor. Seeking support from the resources available in the workplace can make a significant difference in fostering a thriving and healthy career. Holding colleagues, managers, and leadership accountable is crucial in addressing and mitigating these harmful experiences.

In this example, the employee approached HR for coaching to navigate this complex situation. By utilizing available resources, she empowered herself to address the issue effectively, making a significant difference in her experience and that of others on the team. Her proactive approach, seeking assistance, being open to feedback, and engaging in self-reflection, played a pivotal role in achieving a positive outcome.

5. Repair harm; repair trust.

Repeated acts of harm, such as subtle microaggressions, can weigh heavily on well-being, workplace satisfaction, and productivity. To heal from interpersonal tensions that arise from misunderstandings, misaligned perspectives or expectations, hurtful language, abuses of power, or breaches of trust, the person harmed must feel heard, respected, and valued.

According to Kay Pranis, a national leader in restorative justice, assuming accountability and implementing measures to rectify the damage caused and prevent its recurrence requires five elements:

  1. Acknowledge that your actions caused harm.
  2. Acknowledge that you had agency in those actions.
  3. Understand the full impact of your actions on anyone who was impacted.
  4. Take steps to repair the harm and make amends.
  5. Identify patterns or habits that led to causing harm and take steps to change those habits.

Repairing harm can manifest in various ways: acknowledging the harm, expressing remorse, admitting guilt, and committing to behavioral change through new policies, commitments, or agreements.

As a woman of color, I’ve heard my fair share of comments that offend, upset, or hurt me, and I have regrettably done the same to others. Whenever I’ve been the target of microaggressions, I try to collect my thoughts and emotions before addressing a coworker, respond assertively with “I” statements, and often reply with kindness and humor to defuse the tension. For example: “When you restated my recommendation in the recap meeting without giving me credit, I felt erased from our conversation. I’d like us to have a healthy working relationship. Can you help me understand why you omitted my contribution?” Or: “When you confused me for the other Latina on the floor, I felt we were both invisible to you. And I think I’m pretty memorable!”

When I unintentionally make an insensitive comment, such as misgendering someone, I immediately approach the impacted individual with humility. I sincerely listen to understand the impact of my words and offer a heartfelt apology while taking complete accountability for my words and actions. I also encourage them to call me in if I repeat such behavior because I am committed to learning from my mistakes and growing.

To be clear, it is not the responsibility of women, BIPOC, or members of marginalized communities to educate their colleagues on how to foster healthy interactions. To proactively create more meaningful relationships, ask yourself these questions: How can I focus on what the person is saying, and not solely on how they say it or how they look? What else do I need to know to understand what my colleague is trying to communicate instead of dismissing or avoiding what they say? And before addressing someone’s uncomfortable comment, ask yourself: Am I responding to being shut down, ignored, or offended, or am I trying to be right? If both parties are willing, there are ways of responding that can lead to constructive conversations and shared understanding.

Repeated acts of harm in particular must be addressed. MIT’s Sloan School of Management conducted a study in 2022 that found that employee turnover is 10 times more influenced by a toxic corporate culture than compensation. Taking responsibility means understanding the wide range of perspectives and experiences across teams and proactively identifying sources of tension. A good starting point is asking yourself, “What do I need to hear, what do I need to say, and what would I like to see as an outcome?”

In this example, the manager took essential steps to repair the trust his insensitive comments had initially broken. He demonstrated accountability by acknowledging the harm his words caused and engaged in open dialogue. By actively working to understand the impact of his words and offering to take tangible steps to change his behavior, he successfully began repairing the trust with his new employee and, quite possibly, his relationship with the broader team.

Many of us want to change workplace conditions so everyone can thrive, yet sometimes, we are terrified of messing up, saying the wrong thing, or not being able to do enough. Addressing interpersonal tensions and toxicity requires an ongoing, proactive effort that fosters empathy, intentionality, and courage. By identifying the true source of the tension, seeking understanding, assessing when to intervene, involving neutral third parties if necessary, and repairing harm and trust quickly and often, you can prevent conflict from escalating and build a stronger, more connected, and more effective team.

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