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Navigating stormy seas

By Katarina Taurian
February 06 2015
3 minute read
Navigating stormy seas
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Every workplace has its politics, and how you deal with dramas and disputes at work can have a significant impact on staff morale and productivity. Katarina Taurian reports.

Disputes and disagreements are inevitable in any workplace and frequently, the smaller the office, the more intense the politics can seem.
However, some workplaces seem to be more volatile than others – often, the reasons for this come from the top down.
“The key issue that tends to come into play is the quality of the leader, the chief executive officer. If the person is a make-money-at-all-costs, command and control bully, then you’re going to be in trouble,” the chair of The Australian Human Resources Institute, Peter Wilson told SMSF Adviser.
There’s an old-style management of command and control – it tends to breed a ‘monkey see and monkey do’ approach among staff that bullying or intimidation or not treating people respectfully is OK, says Mr Wilson.
And it’s from the top down that disputes can often be dealt with, mitigated and prevented.

Preventative measures


Disputes are symptomatic of the fact that employees are unhappy in their role or workplace – and if you constantly deal with the symptoms as opposed to the disease, it follows that the same problems will keep arising.
A staff survey is a simple but powerful way to get to the heart of potential sore points and to nip them in the bud.
“Five things people want to know at work are what their job is; they want to know what’s expected of them; they want to know what others around them are doing; and they want to know where the organisation is headed. Importantly, they also want to be treated with respect,” Mr Wilson says.
“The classic example of that is a garbage guy that worked at NASA. He was asked what his job was. His answer? ‘I’m helping put a man on the moon.’ So if you’re at that level of the organisation, when people understand what they’re doing in the context of where it’s all going and where their role is… you’ll have a positive organisation,” he says.
“A good survey of firms will ask those five questions in some way,” he says.

Creating culture

Creating an inclusive, inviting culture is a key preventative measure for smaller practices in particular, where personalities and politics tend to be magnified by virtue of proximity.
“Getting the culture right in the first place is the key. If you have the wrong people that will create a toxic atmosphere,” says principal of Omniwealth Matt Kidd.
“You also need people that are driven to be the best they can be – if you have ‘passengers’, then the hard working team members will resent them, again creating a poor culture,” he says.
“Once you have the right team in place then it’s important to reward success, and doing exercises as a team outside of the office is a part of that, as well as [giving out] personal rewards that don’t always involve money.”
But how do you create a favourable culture? Jenny Brown, principal at JBS Financial Strategists, believes rewarding your staff is a key part of creating a content environment.
“We run a lot of social events – for example, we do an end of financial year lunch. We’re also known for celebrating our staff birthdays,” Ms Brown says.
“What we’ve also instigated is afternoon or late afternoon events. A couple of weeks ago we ran a lawn bowls day. That’s a small investment from my point of view – lawn bowls costs about $400, so that’s not a lot, but it builds that team and people get talking, and they relax,” she adds.

How involved should I be?

The difficulty for a practice manager, particularly in a smaller practice, is finding the line between having your finger on the pulse and being too involved in your staff’s behaviour. Crossing this line can make it difficult to effectively prevent and manage disputes.
Leaders of an organisation have a duty to provide a fit and proper workplace for their employees. However, it’s often necessary to keep day-to-day intricacies at arm’s length.
“I like a happy medium. I don’t need to know the nitty gritty, but I do like to know what’s going on,” says Ms Brown.
Similarly, Mr Kidd says he would only step in to manage a dispute if it was serious and required senior level intervention.
Disputes between or involving direct reports to the practice principal or chief executive, however, require without doubt the intervention and mediation of the organisation’s leader.

Jenny Brown’s top tips for a healthy workplace:

1. Provide the option of flexible hours or working from home for key employees
2. Ensure the office has a collaborative environment where everyone’s voice is heard
3. Provide a mix of social events with work to get that balance right so that everyone feels part of a team and feels they are valued

Matt Kidd’s top tips for a healthy workplace:

1. Create the best culture you can
2. Have robust and enforceable HR policies
3. Reward good performance (financial and non-financial) to create a winning attitude that prevents their being ‘passengers’ on board