Resolve Cultural Tensions at Work

July 18, 2018

Contributor: Jackie Wiles

For an organizations culture to perform, employees must know how to make effective trade-offs as they juggle conflicting priorities and objectives.

Have you ever experienced a culture clash at work? Be honest: If your organization is undergoing a large transformative effort, you’re probably feeling it right now.

Your peer in another department favors different outcomes than you, your business unit seems to have different priorities than the rest of the organization, and goals the company promoted yesterday seem to be gone today. Perhaps you find yourself struggling to find the balance between two seemingly good options: “Should I prioritize speed or quality? Be innovative or efficient?”

If this all sounds familiar, you’re not alone.

Whatever your organization’s stated culture, and however well you articulate it, employees will feel torn by competing imperatives. According to Gartner research, 77% of employees regularly face cultural tensions in their day-to-day work.

“ Cultures won’t perform if employees can’t translate the priorities into their day-to-day work”

“In the absence of clear direction over how to resolve those tensions, employee alignment with the culture falters,” says Elizabeth Barrett, research director at Gartner. “Cultures won’t perform well if employees can’t translate cultural priorities to their specific day-to-day work and navigate the tensions within it.”

Making clear how to navigate and resolve these tensions is especially crucial for frontline employees, who may feel less able to manage conflicting imperatives than managers and leaders.

Help employees learn what to value most

Senior leaders must not only lead culture change ensure that employees have a clear sense of how to manage tensions and trade-offs. Otherwise, they effectively levy a tax on them — forcing them to weigh trade-offs in every decision, leading to increased employee stress and poor decision-making.

In their everyday work lives, employees need to know:

  • How to make trade-offs between competing priorities
  • How to translate values into specific work situations
  • How to act to support cultural attributes

One global financial services organization faced stagnant customer satisfaction scores despite multiple efforts to give service reps more control over how they resolved customer issues. When business leaders reviewed processes and practices, they found that rigid internal quality assurance criteria kept frontline reps from developing rapport with customers.

Consequently, reps were experiencing cultural tension: Should they prioritize call consistency or should they feel empowered to tailor the call to meet the individual needs of the customer?"

The company’s customer service leaders developed a way to eliminate average handling time from the rep scorecard without sacrificing efficiencies, and told reps they would be measured solely on customer survey scores. Monthly incentives were also realigned to be based entirely on customer satisfaction scores. Notably, by using processes to embed appropriate outcomes in the daily work of frontline employees, customer satisfaction improved — and average handling time dropped even though it was no longer an explicit metric.

This is one example of how the best leaders articulate strategic choices and align systems and processes to support and reinforce good employee decisions, especially at times when employees are conflicted between two good things (e.g., being cost-focused and customer-centric). This enables employees to resolve cultural tensions they frequently encounter but don’t know how to address, and removes a critical barrier to a high-performance culture.

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