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When Conflict in Your Branches is A Good Thing

Posted July 6, 2017 - Gwen Nugent

Conflict, like death and taxes, is inevitable. It’s a normal and natural part of any workplace, as well as our personal lives. But is it always a bad thing? According to respected leaders and researchers, the answer is no. While many of us are inclined to avoid any kind of conflict, especially in the workplace, conflict (depending on how it is managed) can have a positive effect. The key is recognizing positive versus negative conflict and managing it accordingly.

For employees in a bank or credit union environment, the opportunities for opposing opinions, goals, and strategies abound. This is due largely to complex hierarchical structures including front-line employees, branch management, regional management and executive management, with most of the individuals operating in different geographic branches or offices. Add to that several different lines of business operating within the same environment (deposits vs. lending, consumer vs. business, etc.), top it off with the presence of account holders, and you have a bubbling cauldron of conflict potential.  Proper conflict management becomes especially critical in such an environment.

In a Society for Human Resources article (HRMagazine, May 2017) Nate Regier, author of Conflict without Casualties (Berrett-Koehler, 2017) and co-founder of Next Element, a global advisory firm specializing in leadership communication, shared that,

“Negative conflict, characterized by struggling against other people, drains energy, which is costly to companies, teams and relationships. But when approached in a positive way, conflict can spark innovation, trust and engagement.”

Some of the tactics that good conflict managers can take include:

  • Recognize that conflict is not always destructive but is in fact necessary for effective problem solving;
  • Create a work environment in which healthy conflict is encouraged by setting clear expectations;
  • Provide employees with training in healthy conflict and problem-solving skills;
  • Look for signs that a conflict about a solution or direction is getting out of hand. It’s okay to have positive conflict but not to allow negative conflict to destroy your work environment.

Conflict does not need to equate to hostility. In fact, some of the most creative ideas are born out of opposing views and differing perspectives. Conflict can create a frank and open discussion, if it’s managed in such a way to lead to constructive progress rather than destructive dissension.  The truth is that no company ever experienced rapid growth by sticking to the status quo.

An open-minded, progressive manager will harness the notions behind opposing viewpoints and use them to encourage a healthy positive discussion. It’s important that your team feels empowered to speak up without any threat to their reputation, or feelings of vulnerability.  Suppressing conflict will almost certainly squash creative momentum, employees will not feel heard or valued, and morale and enthusiasm will inevitably decrease. In even worse cases, conflict that is not properly managed can lead to performance problems, harassment and even bullying! In a bank or credit union environment, this can be especially destructive, as the industry is continually facing greater competition, increasing needs to evolve and a continual need to improve customer/member service. It’s critical to have an enthusiastic, empowered staff, and team members who are not afraid to be the voice of dissension when necessary!

Here are some common examples of conflict in the bank/credit union workplace and how they can be managed to result in a positive outcome:

Front-line employees disagreeing about work schedules, job responsibilities, and other administrative functions.

It’s common for managers to overlook many of these conflicts, shrugging them off as low-priority. While many such conflicts within your front-line may boil down to administrative in nature, much of this is easily managed through communication and simple changes. But your front line is integral to your bank or credit union because these are the individuals facing your customers or members – your institution’s lifeblood. So it’s essential to keep morale as high as possible at all times!

  • Keep communication open and frequent: Have “town hall” type meetings, where all comments are safe, no topic is “taboo” and keep everybody up to date on any changes or developments that will impact their job. Allow your team to submit anonymous questions and do your best to answer all questions – especially the hard ones. If you don’t have an answer, be honest and admit it.  You’ll be surprised by how much your candor will be appreciated.
  • Follow the proverbial smoke to the fire, and sincerely consider the source or context of the conflict. If your employees are perceiving a problem or an indignity, there must be a reason or explanation. For example, one of our Velocity employees often visits different branches of our bank and credit union clients. At one bank, tensions ran high between the front-line team due to a specific placement of the new accounts desk.  Because of its physical location, it was the most visible point in the branch, and potential customers would walk straight to that particular desk upon entering the building. As a result, the representative stationed at the desk would yield a significantly higher than average rate of new account openings for the day.  In this case, since a branch remodel most likely isn’t an option, a savvy manager would rotate staff members in this highly-desired position, or even use it as a performance incentive.

Longtime employees resting on their laurels

There are many benefits to having longtime, loyal employees in your financial institution – particularly when these same employees willingly embrace progress and learn to evolve with the ever-changing financial services landscape. Unfortunately, sometimes with long tenure comes complacence, resulting in a mechanized routine, feeling of being stuck in a rut, and ultimately, performance stagnation. The last thing you want to hear as a manager is the dreaded motto of the complacent: “But that’s how we’ve always done it.” Enter new, fresh employees with bright new ideas and unbounded enthusiasm, and you have conflict.  How can you harness this conflict to bring about positive results?

  • Emphasize creative, out-of-the-box thinking and lead by example. Offer creative ideas of your own.
  • Conduct brainstorming sessions with clear direction and clearly defined goals. Ensure that the brainstorming environment is a “safe zone” with no bad ideas. Recognize and celebrate all ideas.
  • Mix things up in the branch, perhaps try having your staff work different roles, even temporarily, in an effort to break people out of their comfort zones.
  • Research industry best practices, creative processes and trends and discuss them regularly with your team.
  • Offer incentives, rewards and recognition for high performers, and always acknowledge all efforts, even those that weren’t the “best.”

Older employees who are slow (or refuse) to adapt to new methods

Another challenge managers face is an aging workforce. The segments of the U.S. labor force that are expected to grow the fastest between now and 2024 are those 65 to 74 and 75 and older, much of which is driven by longer life expectancies and postponed retirement (Rick Wartzman, “What America’s Aging Workers Mean for the Future of Work” Fortune, June 22, 2016).

Banks and credit unions located in more rural parts of the country may have even a larger concentration of older employees, due to lack of other employment opportunities in the area. Many older employees may feel daunted by the changing technology landscape, and aren’t mentally and/or physically as quick to learn or adapt, even if they have a genuine interest in learning.  Older workers often tend to be late-adopters of technology or new processes, or even “set in their ways,” making it more difficult for managers to keep pace with the rapidly changing environment.  The bank and credit union space has migrated to more of a sales culture, meaning the front-line must work harder to up-sell and cross-sell. Banking is going digital, with more and more functions performed entirely through mobile apps. Bank and credit union employees need to function as the agents of change, but older employees may be resisting the change themselves. Conflict is certainly introduced when young employees enter the mix, already proficient with new technology, and enthusiastic! How do you manage older employees who are slow or unwilling to adapt?

  • Define your expectations and clearly communicate that ongoing learning is a requirement of the job.
  • Provide training for various skill levels through various channels and times of day. If resources are constrained, consider appointing your branch manager or front-line leader to conduct the training.
  • Offer incentives, rewards and recognition for high performers, and always acknowledge all efforts, even those that weren’t the “best.”
  • If your older employees are unwilling to learn new processes or technology, conduct performance reviews outlining clear expectations and requirements.
  • Be flexible! Older employees have life experiences, wisdom and different generational perspectives that make them a unique part of your team. If new processes or new technology continues to challenge them, consider alternate roles. Perhaps a mentor role, customer/member service, administrative tasks, etc.

If conflict is NOT occurring in your bank or credit union, you need to find out why. According to Susan M. Heathfield, (“How to Encourage Meaningful, Needed Conflict at Work” The Balance, October 12, 2016).

“If you experience little dissension in your group, examine your own actions. If you believe you want different opinions expressed and want to avoid group conflicts, and you experience little disagreement from staff, examine your own actions. Do you, non-verbally or verbally, send the message that it is really not okay to disagree? Do you put employees in a “hot seat” when they express an opinion? Do they get “in trouble” if they are wrong or a predicted solution fails to work? Look inside yourself personally, and even seek feedback from a trusted advisor or staff member, if the behavior of your team tells you that you are inadvertently sending the wrong message.”

Open dialogue with your team will greatly help you to identify and rectify any problems that stand in the way of healthy, positive, and constructive work conflict that can lead to problem-solving, creativity, innovation, renewed employee morale, and ultimately boost your institution’s bottom line.

Gwen Nugent

As Human Resources Director at Velocity Solutions, Gwen provides quality human resources, compensation and labor relations services across all departments in order to provide a productive and responsive workforce, and to better serve our clients. Gwen is a certified Professional in Human Resources (PHR) with over 20 years of diverse human resources experience in a variety of industries.