When conflict arises between two parties that barely know each other, their ability to work together can plunge, especially when they’re located far from each other.
For example, consider the customer department that needed a technical fix for a nagging problem. When I asked why they didn’t contact IT, they unleashed a stream of invectives about the IT department. In their view, IT personnel were untrustworthy, undependable, incompetent, nasty knuckleheads.
Granted, these customers had faced significant frustration in their interactions with IT. Still, to hear them tell it, the IT department did NOTHING RIGHT. (Yes, they shouted this.). When I inquired further, I learned that most of these customers had never met anyone in IT. Since the IT department was several states away, communication was primarily by phone and email.
Still, the intensity of these customers’ hostility for IT made me wonder whether their description might just be valid. Could it be that this IT department aggressively plotted to make their customers’ lives miserable? I went to see for myself.
When I arrived, I looked around warily. Where were the nasty people? Where were the plotting masses?
I met numerous members of the IT organization. They were decent, hardworking people who wanted nothing more than to do right by their customers. They acknowledged that their service quality had plummeted following a wallop of a reorganization. “Our service stinks,” one developer admitted.
Yet even when IT personnel corrected some of their blunders, they never heard a kind word from their customers, nor did they ever get recognition for the many things they did well. They sounded dispirited as they poured out their own litany of negatives about their customers, calling them demanding, unyielding, unappreciative ingrates. They didn’t use the word knuckleheads, but if you listened between the lines, you might have heard it.
When things go wrong between two parties, the tendency to view those you’ve never met as being responsible is a familiar human pattern, especially when they’re located elsewhere. Whether that location is the opposite side of the globe or down the street, many people’s instantaneous reaction is, “It’s their fault.”
Geographic distance makes face-to-face meetings expensive and time-consuming. But sometimes, it’s worth it, as these two groups discovered when they began to arrange visits, a few from each periodically visiting the other. Though face-to-face conversations, they gained an understanding of – and empathy for – each other’s challenges, and they talked more openly about what they needed from each other. When problems arose, they began to talk to each other, rather than scream about each other.
I knew they were making progress when I attended a meeting at which several of the former finger-pointers from the two groups were laughing together. And not a knucklehead among them.