Why are we so afraid of conflict? Because we associate it with combat.
Why are we afraid of combat? Because we don’t want to get hurt.
In the workplace, the fear of conflict stunts creativity, growth and collaboration. So, if we want to get those three important ingredients for productivity and job satisfaction back, we need to learn how to manage conflict effectively for all concerned.
Yes, we can say that it is effectively handled if we can make it go away, hide it under a rock, or beat the other person to a pulp. Problem is the conflict is only temporarily out of sight. It is still lurking. And, lurking conflict is threatening and disempowering. After all, how much work are you going to get done when you know there is a rhino in the room waiting to jump on your chest?
Compelling reasons for sitting yourself down to explore your attitude and fears about conflict? YES! If you are being held captive to your inability or unwillingness to address conflict within yourself or among you and others you live and work with, you are choosing to squelch your creativity and squash your potential. Sounds dire, and, IT’S TRUE!
Ah, you’re thinking that you can find creative ways to resolve conflict. Good thinking! You can with one caveat: it must address the conflict with the intention of a win-win outcome. That might take just a smidge more creativity than you previously thought!
What did home teach you?
In my many seminars on Wrestling Rhinos: Conquering Conflict in the Wilds of Work…and Everywhere Else! I ask the audience how many folks came from a home where no one spoke up when they were upset or hurting, the “Do not say boo to a goose” families. Those are the homes of the “Silent Ones.”
Then, I ask those who came from “Let it all hang out! Tell it like it is.” families to identify themselves. Those are the homes where everyone fought for airtime and whoever had the loudest voice took the day. Those are the homes of the “Ol’ Yellers.” There, people said their piece, cleared the air and went on to live and love again…or, not!
Now, put the extremes of those two home lifestyles together on a team. It isn’t rocket science to quickly realize how those homes impact the workplace even after twenty years in the work force! That’s why it is imperative to strategically and systematically acquire and practice the foundational skills of good conflict management.
What does work teach you?
That all depends on the culture of your workplace. The spectrum between trustworthy and collaborative, and suspicious and superior can be vast. Count your blessings if you have landed in the former.
Recently speaking at a national conference, a participant asked a telling question,
“My boss thinks it is perfectly acceptable to yell, bully and otherwise overpower us into doing her bidding. It keeps my stomach in turmoil and I collapse into bed early every night. What can I do?”
Prime example of a “Silent One” working for an “Ol’ Yeller.” For the silent ones, conflict is internalized and often creates gut-wrenching, sleep-disturbing results. And, that can be just in the delivery of the message, let alone its content! It has nothing to do with the accuracy or legitimacy of the demands Ol’ Yeller is making. It is set in motion by the volume and tone of voice and the perception of domination, superiority and unrealistic expectations. It engenders a fear-based culture. Not good!
So what's a gal or guy to do?
Talk. Yes, it’s difficult, but, a conversation has to be had between Silent One and Ol’ Yeller. No, you only exacerbate the problem by whining, moaning or gossiping about the situation with co-workers. You can clarify your perceptions with a co-worker who has observed the behavior, but never let it become more than that. By the way, if everyone in the office rolls their eyes each time that boss lets loose, there is nothing more needed. It’s time to take action.
Choose a time when things are quiet and conflict is low — at least the conflict directly at you. Ask for a fifteen-minute appointment to talk. Sometimes that alone takes a lot of courage, so, gather yourself up and know you have a right to express your preferences. That’s right. You do. And, you can surely survive fifteen minutes!
Just before the appointed time comes, remind yourself:
“This is a time to talk about me. I am doing this to help my boss understand how we can maximize productivity by working well together. This is a time to communicate my preferences and offer her insights into how I can give her my best. Therefore, I am not going to use the word “you” for the next fifteen minutes.”
Surprised? Using the word “you” when you are anxious, upset or fearful is dangerous. It is best to talk about how a situation affects you than put another person on the defensive. It is so easy to sound judgmental and blaming otherwise. Think about it. Which is easier to hear of these two examples?
A. “When you are yelling orders and threats, I simply want to run. Because I can’t run, I freeze. Your yelling all the time makes it impossible for me to do my job effectively. I want you to stop and think about the effect your yelling has on other people. You get more with honey, you know.” Or,
B. “I want to do a good job here and I want to support the goals of the team. I know I do my best work in a quiet environment where I’m trusted. Sometimes I don’t feel trusted to know what I’m doing and to get it done in a timely, effective way. Is there anything I can improve on, or do differently, that will support you and the team more?
That’s the first step: being curious, open and willing to learn about the boss. We all like people who are interested in us. Be that person at work, even with the boss who makes Attila the Hun seems like a pussycat.
When you show your interest and willingness to actually manage a conflict and turn it into effective communication, you are demonstrating leadership.
With practice, you will reduce any fear you may have and realize the potential in conflict. Sure, you may have to dodge a few bullets on your way to an improved skills set, but your skill set will be actively improving and you’ll feel better.
Just, do it!