In Greek the word utopia literally means no place. For us it means paradise, a place of bliss and peace, but the irony was probably intended: there is no place without worries, problems and conflict.
So, in this life no one has discovered or established utopia. Escaping conflict is not an option. We have all experienced conflict at home, indeed from the earliest age. We’ve faced it on the playground and in sports. Even when you go to the movies, conflict is always there: especially in films such as Twelve Angry Men and The Contender, but even in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Cinderella. Hence, you’ve probably heard this wise counsel many times: “The issue is not whether or not you will encounter conflict, but how you will deal with it.”
It is not stress that kills us. It is effective adaptation to stress that allows us to live. George Vaillant, psychiatrist
At the core of all anger is a need that is not being fulfilled. Marshall B. Rosenberg, American psychologist
“Remember: The only thing we have complete control over is our behavior.”
Each one of us could probably write a book about conflict at work. Since we spend many hours each day in the workplace, and since our livelihoods depend on surviving on the job and working well with others, it is imperative that we learn to deal with conflict in the workplace.
A lot of people hate their jobs because conflict is not acknowledged and dealt with. They don’t hate what they do: they hate the stress, the emotional tug of war.
It is almost a foregone conclusion that conflict will ensue when two or more people with opposing opinions are unable to find middle ground. And needless to say, when people operate with intent to deceive, conflict can be taken to whole new level. But when conflict is managed effectively, it can provide valuable lessons.
So How Do We Manage Conflict?
Where Do We Begin?
The first step is to assess the situation as objectively as possible, so that you can position yourself to communicate from a position of awareness. It is important that everyone’s position and stake be understood as clearly as possible. (1) Person A has an opinion and vested interest, (2) Person B has an opinion and vested interest, but there is (3) that place in the middle that represents an agreed upon solution.
One of my clients, Timothy, is a senior learning and development professional, responsible for identifying and placing administrative managers; he ended up putting himself in an uncomfortable situation. His role was to review the job requirements and compare the skills, experiences and relocation preferences of qualified candidates. New to his position, he was eager to impress, and wasted no time finding and contacting the individual whom he thought was the ideal candidate, Connie, an administrative manager with more than ten years of experience. Connie was ready and willing to relocate to Atlanta, even if it resulted in settling for a lower salary. But after Timothy had recommended Connie for the position, he discovered that Connie had been in her current position for only six months. He informed her that she was not eligible for the Atlanta transfer, because of her length of service. He thought that his call to Connie to inform her of this had ended on a positive note. That was the end of the story for Timothy, or at least so he thought.
A few days later Timothy got a call from a senior branch manager who had been on the team that hired him. Getting on this manager’s good side would do wonders for his career, but disappointing him could mean exactly the opposite. This is how the conversation unfolded:
Timothy: “Hello Mr. …”
Branch Manager: “Are you the person who called a member of my management team about a position in Atlanta?”
Timothy: “Yes, but the position has since been filled. What else can I help you with sir?”
Branch Manager: “You can help me by not interrupting me again. You called a member of my team about another position without my knowledge or consent?”
Timothy: “Yes but…”
Branch Manager: “And, did I just hear you say that the position has been filled?”
Timothy: “Yes, but I…”
Branch Manager: “Let me see if I’ve got this straight. You contacted a manager of my management team to discuss a position in a location that she has been wanting for years. And, to add insult to injury, it’s no longer available. Is that about right, Timothy?”
Timothy: “Yes, but…”
Branch Manager: “Young man, you need to consider a new line of work. Your actions are inexcusable. I don’t think you are cut out for this type of work. And truth be told, you were not my choice. When you and I are done, I’m going to have a conversation with your manager. He needs to know what a debacle you just made.”
Timothy: (Hoping to ease the tension, but his attempt at humor failed miserably). “I beg your pardon. The last time I checked, I believe I am older than you are. Didn’t your mother tell you to respect your elders?”
Branch Manager: “What is your name again?”
Timothy: “You don’t remember me. I am Timothy, the newest member of Phil’s team and I really don’t feel there is cause for your condescending tone. I don’t understand why you are raking me over the coals, especially since I was trying to do what’s right for the firm. I would think you would be pleased that someone would consider Connie for the position in Atlanta because she is a reflection on you.”
Branch Manager: “And you would be wrong. That’s your problem young man. You didn’t think. You don’t have to like my tone, but if you want to stay in your role, you’d be careful how you speak to me. Do you understand?”
Timothy: “Is there anything I can do to make this situation better?”
Branch Manager: “I didn’t get this far in my career by not knowing how to deal with these types of situations. I think I have enough experience to clean up your mess. You’ve already done enough.”
As you can imagine, Timothy could not believe what just happened to him. He replayed the conversation in his mind over and over, and each time came to the same conclusion: he had done everything he was hired to do. He was upset because the branch manager questioned his integrity and qualifications, and would possibly derail his career. From his perspective, he felt he had found the ideal candidate with the perfect background and skills — and one who would jump at the opportunity to relocate.
What went wrong here? As I reviewed this episode with Timothy, he was sure that he knew that the branch manager had been wrong. I could see that the incident consumed him, and he rattled off the mistakes the manager had made:
Branch Manager’s Contributions
- Decided that Timothy was wrong before he made the call.
- Was inappropriately condescending.
- Interrupted more than once.
- Questioned his qualifications and threatened his job.
- Did not respect him.
- Used fear and intimidation as weapons; threatened to call his manager.
- Did not give him credit for doing any part of his job well.
- Refused to accept his offer to assist.
Timothy was convinced he was not a contributor to the confrontation, and he did not deserve any of the blame. He stressed that he would have not changed a thing if he had to do it over. I then asked if he could have acquired more information about Connie’s profile from HR or another source — before telling her about the Atlanta position. And wouldn’t it have been politically correct and strategically wise to get approval first from the branch manager—before contacting Connie? I could see the light bulb come on as he experienced a major breakthrough. He hadn’t been an innocent bystander: he had been a major player in a stressful episode.
Timothy’s Contributions to the Crisis
- Did not contact the branch manager or the Regional Administrative Manager (RAM) prior to contacting Connie.
- Word choice and tone may have been inappropriate.
- Assumed a defensive posture and lost control of the conversation.
- Should not have attempted humor.
- Took it personally and internalized the conversation.
- Presumed the branch manager was calling him to welcome him to his new role.
Timothy finally admitted that he had made some big mistakes, but he continued to believe that he was less wrong than the branch manager. It wasn’t until we reviewed how the situation had unfolded that he began to see how both parties had contributed to the escalation.
- Use of inappropriate tone.
- Decided the other was to blame.
- Inability or unwillingness to understand the other’s perspective.
- Branch manager had adopted the role of the bully, while Timothy was defensive.
I reminded Timothy that the only thing we have complete control over is our behavior. Conflict, whether handled effectively or poorly, can be life altering, and can provide an indelible lesson for life. And this was the case with Timothy. If he had taken a moment to make one call, he could have ruled Connie out as a viable candidate and the ensuing conversation with the branch manager may have never taken place, or it would have been a very different exchange.
Timothy’s Life Lessons
- Always do your research before diving head first into a situation.
- It’s okay to admit that you were wrong.
- When you discover that you are wrong, apologize sooner rather than later.
- Accept responsibility for your actions.
- Well intended humor is not always appropriate.
- The best strategy in a tense situation is to stop, listen and learn before responding.
- Avoid jumping to conclusions before having all of the information.
- Don’t assume you know why someone is contacting you.
- Mistakes can be corrected.
Timothy had no problems apologizing to the branch manager and planned to do so. But he also understood the importance of time and distance. So upon realizing the significance of his contribution, he chose to contact the RAM to give him a heads-up. He apologized for not connecting with him prior to or after the conversation with Connie. He then detailed his interaction with the branch manager. Timothy explained that he offered assistance, but the branch manager refused. The RAM did not like the way things had unfolded. He gave Timothy some feedback, sighed heavily and thanked him for the call.
Although the first call was to the RAM, it was still not easy to do it, but Timothy knew that it was the right thing to do. He felt a sense of relief and new-found confidence.
Tips for Handling Conflict
- Assess the situation and identify your contribution.
- Don’t exacerbate the situation by letting the other person control how you respond to conflict.
- Confront with courage from a position of knowledge. This can take the form of knowing when to admit you are wrong and extending an earnest apology.
- Knowing when to walk away can be the best strategy.
- Know your triggers.
Pitfalls That Contribute to Conflict:
- Talking more than you listen: “Take the cotton out of your ears and put it your mouth. You need to listen more and talk less.”
- Interrupting is rude, disrespectful and contributes to negative energy.
- Having a defensive posture can prevent the other person from wanting to work through the issue.
- Failing to admit your contribution to the problem.
At the end of the day, don’t run from conflict. Position yourself for success; always take a moment to reflect before you respond and when in doubt, close your mouth.
Which hurts the most, saying something and wishing you had not, or saying nothing and wishing you had?
Javan, American poet