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How to eliminate bickering and turf wars at work

Dan Bobinski

Have you ever thought about why you have sniping, bickering and turf wars at work? I’m going to suggest it’s because people aren’t in tune enough with your mission and vision. Of course, many other factors also come into play, such as personality clashes, insecurities, and/or greediness, to name a few. But I’m a firm believer that the biggest reason for workplace strife is people not working collaboratively to achieve your organization’s mission and vision.

Think about it. Whenever your organization’s mission and vision are not at the heart of your team’s actions, that’s when individual agendas rise up and people start jockeying for position. After that happens it’s even easier for the vision and mission to fade from view. In fact, I’ve seen situations deteriorate in mere weeks when people take their eyes off the organization’s prime mission.

So if that’s the problem, how to fix it? Addressing the symptoms (the sniping, bickering and turf wars) may be necessary, but addressing only those issues will not cure the problem. Ironically, addressing only those issues usually compounds the bickering!

To truly curtail turf war, bickering and sniping issues you must first go to the heart of the issue (pun intended) by planting and tending the organization’s mission and vision in everyone’s heart. Some people describe this as creating a compelling picture of the future, but even that could benefit from some clarity, so here are some ideas for how that might look:

1. Get your team to build an alliteration for your mission or vision. It’s easy for people to remember a group of three words that begin with the same letter, and if it’s your team that comes up with the words, they’re all the more likely to own them, too.

2. Another technique to help with personalizing a mission statement is to brainstorm actual scenarios that would happen if the mission statement was being lived out by everyone on the team. Don’t settle for vague generalities. Instead, go for specifics. If people offer general ideas, ask them “what would that look like?” The more specific scenarios your team can brainstorm, the better.

3. As you’re working with your team in #2 above, pay particular attention to the verbs. Again, more specific is better. For example, one overly generic verb is “communicate.” The intention is good, but the act of communicating can have a dozen different forms. Therefore, drill down for specifics. Do they want to make phone calls? Send written correspondence? Use e-mail? What specific form(s) of communication might they be talking about?

I know some of you are thinking that these types of activities are beyond your scope as a manager, but quite the contrary is true. Great leaders throughout history know that for passion-driven teams to exist, the leaders must tap into the team members’ attitudes and values. It may sound like nothing more than a touchy-feely exercise, but in reality it’s a core management and leadership skill. If you want better success in your role as a manager or leader at reducing workplace sniping, bickering and turf wars, then this is a skill you need to learn and sharpen.

Just be careful not to fall into what some believe to be the “traditional” ways of instilling vision and mission. Here are some “traditional” approaches, but they rarely have a significant impact:

1. Avoid creating fancy PowerPoint presentations and calling meetings to tell people how the vision and mission statements will help them. That may have value at some point, but most team members first want to know that you care about what they value. Therefore, talk with people. Ask them about what they like about their job and what engages them to do well.

2. Don’t make the vision and mission statements dry or boring, yet don’t make them unachievable, either. People are motivated by being engaged in something bigger than themselves, so define your mission and vision as something that touches on that aspect of human nature. Something that’s dry and boring will drain energy from your team. At the same time, something that’s so far beyond reach as to make it impossible will lead people to lose hope quickly (if they ever gain it at all).

3. Don’t make your vision or mission statement about profits. Instead, wrap your focus around the idea of quality, discovery, achievement or caring. These are moral purposes which resonate with people. Naturally you’ll need to put your own unique specifics on it, but if you focus mainly on profitability, then doing the activities that result in profits will become secondary in people’s minds.

Bottom line, turf wars, sniping and bickering are merely symptoms of an underlying problem that people aren’t engaged enough with the vision and mission of the organization. When teams rally around a common mission and vision, their common focus becomes a compelling force, and that force unites people to do great things.

Dan Bobinski is a management trainer, best-selling author and director at the Center for Workplace Excellence. He makes his home in Boise. Reach him at (208) 375-7606 or dan@workplace-excellence.com.

About Dan Bobinski