When Departments Go To War

Agencies and production companies employ people in very different disciplines, and they tend to have very different personalities. Conflict and tension between groups is inevitable. If you channel the tension in the right way, it can make the work stronger. And the different skill sets can complement one another. For example, a good analytical planner can position a risky  creative idea strategically in a way that gets the client to buy a campaign even thought it makes her nervous. 

But departments that become warring factions can damage the work, client relationships, and morale—often badly enough to put you out of business. I’ve seen account teams and creative teams face off like feuding bootleggers; not just as individuals but as entire groups. Project management vs. finance; operations vs. creative, the permutations are endless. Us vs Them is always toxic. 

So what can you do when the tension and differences escalate into outright conflict? 

1.    Acknowledge the problem. This kind of tension tends to build slowly. In time, it can become a given and people take it for granted. Once you understand that you have a problem, name it, own it, and change it. 
2.    Are you playing favorites? Look carefully at how you manage.  Do the creatives all have cool offices while the account team makes do with cubicles? Does the planner get short-changed on time for research while creatives have months to create concepts? Is the media team always consulted once it’s too late for them to make a difference? Are digital and social an afterthought? Most shops have symbolic frames that clearly indicate where each team stands in the hierarchy. That can make the ignored people feel resentful and the favorites feel entitled. Allocate physical space, time off, and benefits equally. 
3.    Find the Bridgers. Someone in each of the warring groups nearly always has social capital in the other group. These people are rarely senior – look for a mid-level or junior person who can connect across party lines: the project manager who hangs out with the junior creatives, or the accountant who understands how much creatives hate to do time cards and helps them out. These people can help you bring the problems to light and solve them, or at least give you insight into the real problems and players. 
4.    Find a neutral space for team building. Intentionally mix up the teams. It can be a softball game, an art exhibit, or a volunteer project. Let the Bridgers come up with the event and run it while you provide support. 
5.    Don’t avoid conflict, but get down to causes and conditions. Talk with people alone and in groups. Bring in outsiders if you think it would help. Again, your most valuable sources of information may be the junior people. 
6.    Don’t tolerate misbehavior. People must disagree respectfully, without belittling or insults. Let people vent or even raise their voices but don’t tolerate personal attacks. 
7.    Be a role model. Do you inadvertently contribute to the negative environment? Do you praise and give credit, or just point out flaws? Does your style give permission for an Us vs Them dynamic? Check with a spouse, friend, or peer. You may subconsciously “side” with the discipline where you started. Make sure you pay attention during meetings. Being on your phone or computer during meetings can show disrespect to the presenter or the entire team. I’ve seen a leader who was a creative pay attention during the creative presentation but then jump on his email when it was time for production to present, giving the team a clear, if inadvertent, message. Do you secretly disdain one or more groups? Trust me, they know. 

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