Is the coronavirus causing the faultlines in your organization to break up? For example, because one department is overwhelmed trying to manage the crisis, while another department is looking for meaningful activities to stay busy. Yet, these groups are not able to help each other because of different skillsets and mistrust. The team literature has a few answers. A common goal, relational leadership, and connectors are your best options to prevent faultlines from cracking and making problems even worse because of internal conflicts.
Faultlines in a time of crisis
In a time of crisis, dormant fault lines are likely to suddenly become apparent. The definition of a faultline is “Faultlines are hypothetical dividing lines that split a group into two or more subgroups based on the alignment of one or more individual attributes and have been found to influence group processes, performance outcomes, and affective outcomes.”
In other words, faultlines are these invisible tensions between groups that always exist but rarely surface. Until you experience an earthquake like the current crisis. For example, tensions between departments or groups like nursing/physicians, engineering/operations, practice groups/business development, lawyers/staff etc. have always existed. Now, these tensions may suddenly flare-up, resulting in mistrust and below-par performance at a time when you need collaboration the most.
Crises can heal faultlines or make them worse
In normal circumstances, it are relatively minor events that trigger conflicts across faultlines. Like a nurse speaking up to a physician in front of a patient.
However, in this case, we are dealing with a major crisis. If both groups are equally impacted, like nurses and physicians at the moment, the faultline is unlikely to cause problems. The common “enemy” creates a bonding effect.
However, in many organizations the crisis causes faultlines to break open. For example, the labor & employment practice group of the law firm is super busy at the moment, while the merger & acquisition practice group is basically sitting idle. That may cause the faultline that existed between these practice groups to split open. The greater the specialization in an organization, the more difficult it is to help each other out and create a common understanding of what needs to be done.
The sad thing is, that both groups may actually be trying to help each other. However, mistrust about the other’s intentions leads to conflict and greater inefficiencies.
Being the hero
We all like to be a hero. Humans, in general, prefer taking action over withdrawing and sheltering.
So someone who works in a department where the work has come to a standstill would like to join the department that is still in full swing. Even if there is little if anything they can do in this other team.
In a time that we all try to practice social distancing, you don’t want such “unnecessary” heroes lingering around.
For an engineer, who has relevant skills sets and experience with operations, his or her feelings can be easily hurt if their help is denied by operations. Nobody likes to be sent home from the action, because they are (perceived to be) in the way.
For departments in the middle of the action, their focus is to stay in control and manage the crisis situation. After all their group or department is impacted the most. They try to avoid accepting outside help, as that seems distracting. The people from the other group/department/team are (perceived to be) unuseful because they are not “like us”.
It is absolutely true that in the current situation, you want fewer people on-site instead of more. And at the same time, there is more work to be done. Therefore, being the lone hero is not the solution either. The overwhelmed parts of the organization need help.
What Research Tells Us
Researchers Sherry Thatcher and Pankaj Patel show that stronger faultlines lead to greater conflict and lower team cohesion. It reduces team performance and team member satisfaction (source 1 and source 2).
It is also clear that faultlines are more likely to appear and be problematic when (source):
- There are strong perceived similarities among members within each subgroup and greater perceived differences between the subgroups
- The team is neither very large nor very small
- There are fewer sub-groups (e.g., having two sub-groups is usually more detrimental than having three)
- Team members are less open to experience and diversity of perspectives
Most of the solutions offered in the literature are of no help in the current crisis situation because they are focused on preventing faultlines from occurring.
Below are three suggestions that you can use to reduce tensions and repair faultlines.
Three ways to overcome the negative impact of faultlines
1. Establish shared goals
The health of employees and survival of the organization are common objectives, but those are too high level to guide the actions for each group. Therefore, be sure to define common goals that enable both groups to act. For example, the goal could be defined as ‘keep operations running with the fewest number of people as possible’.
A goal that makes it clear for the operations and the engineering teams what to do. Engineering should come up with smart ways to keep people out of operations. And operations knows they should focus on trying to do more with fewer people. That will make it easier for them to accept that people in engineering are being allowed to work from home.
2. Shift towards a more relationship-focused leadership style
Shift towards a more relationship-focused style of leadership. What does that mean? Relationship-oriented (or relationship-focused) leadership is a behavioral approach in which the leader focuses on the satisfaction, motivation and the general well-being of the team members (source).
Focus on the people involved and make sure they know what to do and why, instead of focussing on the tasks at hand and making sure those get done.
3. Use connectors
A connector in this context is someone who shares something in common with both groups (e.g., the salesperson who used to be an engineer or the engineer who used to be in operations).
In the case above, having engineering defining a process and protocol for taking the temperature of employees at the entrance may not work if faultlines are strong. Because in that case, operations would not trust engineering to understand the situation.
If you have a connector, even if it is just one person who has experience in both, they can help reduce the detrimental effects of a faultline. That way, your engineering staff can help operations by developing the protocols and processes for a relatively simple operation like taking everyone’s temperature and take something off the plate of operations.
Your crisis team
If you work with a crisis team, this team will need to consist of people from both sides of the faultline. You want your crisis team to bridge faultlines, not to make them occur. In a crisis situation, faultlines can easily break, for example as simple as association with the other group.
It won’t be difficult to get people to join your crisis team from the parts of the organization where work has come to a standstill. Just make sure that you also have sufficient representation from the overloaded parts of the organization. That may require you to get someone out of retirement, to give that part of the organization a proper voice.
Awareness of faultlines will help you to make sure that the recommendations from your crisis team are not only useful and practical but also trusted. You don’t have time for second-guessing all decisions, processes, and protocols that need to be put in place.
And hopefully, by making the best use of the people who have time at hand, you can avoid furloughs and layoffs as much as possible.
Stay safe, healthy, and productive!