Your coworkers may look busy, but if you’re not sure what they do all day, you’re not alone. According to the State of Work Report 2018 by the project management platform Workfront, 86% of us don’t have a clear sense of what our colleagues are working on.
We also believe that we’re the most productive employees at work, ahead of those coworkers and company leadership. If we were asked to rate our coworkers like Uber drivers, we’d give them an average score of 3.7 stars out of five, according to the study. Not bad, but not stellar, either. Since it’s impossible for everyone to be the most productive employee, the confusion can lead to conflict.
“Coworkers can be a particularly strong influence on employee satisfaction, especially when employees have to rely heavily on each other to complete their work,” says Kevin Cruz, assistant professor of management at the University of Richmond’s Robins School of Business. “Unfortunately, coworkers’ priorities and goals, which can be a result of the particular roles employees fill within their organizations, do not always align. This can cause a lot of frustration between coworkers.”
Instead of getting frustrated, assume positive intent, says Colleen Kerr, senior career management consultant at the consulting firm Right Management. “Your coworker is likely not deliberately trying to annoy you,” she says.
Here are the top three sources of frustration we have with our coworkers, and how you can resolve or reconsider your perspective to boost collaboration and productivity.
The top source of trouble is conflicting priorities, with 57% of employees saying there’s a lack of alignment on strategic objectives.
“Timelines and urgency aren’t commonly understood, and the information that managers and frontline team members need to meet their objectives isn’t readily available,” says Scott Lee, vice president of product marketing for Workfront. “All of this leads to conflict at the front line.”
The way to reduce coworker frustration with conflicting priorities is to increase transparency around what’s most important to the organization,” says Laura Handrick, career analyst for the resource site FitSmallBusiness.com. “It starts with communicating the organizations’ vision, mission, and values,” she says. “Those drive how the organization behaves.”
Different project leaders, such as those working in operations, HR, or IT, may have different priorities,” says Handrick. “Using collaborative and transparent online project management tools like Asana or Trello can help get everyone on the same page,” she suggests. “If all are required to use a similar tool for documenting priorities, then conflicting priorities are quickly discovered by management, and workers are no longer caught in the middle.”
Team members should also create priority lists at the beginning of a new work cycle, adds John Paul Stephens, professor of organizational behavior at Case Western Reserve University. “What needs to be done when and why?” he asks. “Some degree of strategic planning is important for the most productive people and organizations. It’s also important for interdependent work, since you need to be able to articulate these needs and priorities to others.”
Fifty-six percent of workers have communication issues with coworkers, according to the survey. Lee says workplace communication tools are in transition, with old tools, like spreadsheets, emails, and meetings being used at the same time as new tools, such as digital workflow platforms. This can lead to trouble.
“Gathering information, sharing insights, and updating team members is still a fairly analog, manual process,” he says. “How many times does conflict arise because one person or a team wasn’t aware another person or team was doing something?”
Coworkers should get on the same page when it comes to the preferred method of communication, says Stephens. “Some people think a text message or email is enough, while others realize that you need to set up a face-to-face meeting or just go find the person at their desk,” he says. “People perceive a lack of timely communication because they may have different ideas of what matters and when it needs to be executed.”
Frustration about a lack of communication can also be due to a gap in coworkers’ ability to express what they need, when they need it, and why it is so important, says Natalie Baumgartner, chief workforce scientist at the employee engagement firm Achievers. “It is critical to support individuals in being able to provide regular feedback to their manager and coworkers about how they are feeling about the communication on a team, and whether they’re being heard in the way they want to be,” she says.
Finally, 47% of employees are frustrated when it comes to a lack of urgency. Whether in small or large groups, someone has to be the orchestra conductor keeping time for everyone else, says Stephens.
“If we assume that individual humans typically tend to focus on their immediate, personal concerns, then it becomes easier to appreciate the need to have agreed-upon timelines, clear accountability criteria, and someone who tracks and updates the schedule,” he says. “Research has consistently shown that interdependent or collective rather than individual rewards are needed for effective teamwork. The sense of urgency ideally has to come from a sense of shared goals and accomplishments.”
Lack of urgency can also be connected to communication problems, adds Kerr. “It could be that your coworker does not fully understand your deadlines and commitments,” she says. “Take the time to explain your timelines and the reason for the tight deadlines. We often assume that everyone understands our roles and responsibilities, yet that is not always the case.”