Category Archives: Workplace Conflict

Is there life after an investigation? Part 2

Last month I discussed how to get back to normal (or at least establish a new normal that works) after a workplace investigation. I suggested that the first things to do are

  • Conclude the investigation as quickly as possible,
  • Split up the complainant and respondent, if at all possible, and
  • Acknowledge any fault on the part of the employer.

There are a number of other things you can do that will increase the chances of a healthy tomorrow.

Set a goal going forward, and be as specific as you can. For example, assist the workgroup that went through the investigation in focusing on what, specifically, they need to accomplish together in the next quarter. Get their minds off of what happened, and on to reaching the next goal. You can’t just tell them to forget what happened. They won’t. But you can, and should, help them refocus.

Show them you care. Demonstrate caring – don’t just talk about it. Listen. Empathize. Respect people’s feelings. Do things that demonstrate that the staff members are important to you. And show that you care both about the people who are still employed with you, and those who left (whether they chose to leave or were dismissed). Never make negative comments publicly.

Address the fears. After an investigation, people will be afraid: afraid it could happen to them. Afraid they wouldn’t be believed if it did. Afraid they could be wrongly accused. Afraid nothing will change. Afraid things will change. Address the fears. To the extent possible, give information about what happened, and how the issues that were brought out in the investigation are being addressed. Acknowledge the fears, and make it OK to talk about them. This is hard – acknowledge that it’s hard, and that working together, with a common goal and management that cares, you can make it through this crisis and come out better in the end.

Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. You’ll likely have to have the same conversation several times. Don’t get impatient. Each person works through a workplace crisis (and yes, an investigation can be a crisis) at his or her own pace. Remember that in the absence of information from you, people will make up their own information and see it as truth. They’ll develop reasons and explanations – which may or may not have anything to do with fact. So, provide information, lots of it – communicate.  And keep communicating. Not only will this address the fear and anxiety, over time it will build trust.

Check out Jay Shepherd’s Result Triangle in which he addresses these three steps for helping people move in a particular direction.

Finally, keep yourself from going crazy. Be sure you have trusted colleagues with whom you can work this through. You need someone in whom to confide, someone to talk to. If you find yourself going crazy, take a deep breath. Take a time-out. Don’t react – you risk long-term negative consequences to your workplace if you let your emotions take over. If you find that starting to happen, take a break.

And remember: this too shall pass.

Do you have other tips or insights for recovering from investigations? Please share them! ~ Daphne Schneider

Advertisements

Aggravation!!!!!

Most of us are sometimes faced with people at work who drive us nuts.  That can even happen to me with clients and others.  I’ve also recently been in conversations and interviews with people who have complained bitterly about their bosses or co-workers.  Many of these complaints have revolved around variations on one issue: what the subject of the complaint is doing that is wrong or stupid or inefficient or counterproductive (as defined by the person being driven nuts, of course!).  So, I’ve been thinking about how best to deal with these aggravating folks.

I’ve come up with a short list of questions (and answers) to use as a guide with the intended result of reducing my (and perhaps your) aggravation (and stress!) with some of these challenges in our lives.

First, a given: You can change yourself (your behaviors, attitudes, beliefs…), but you can only (at most) influence others.  So do NOT approach these aggravating people with the intent of changing them or you are likely to simply end up more aggravated yourself.

 Now, answer the following questions on your way to reducing your aggravation:

Question 1:  Is the aggravating behavior violating a law or company policy?

  • If yes (but you’d better be SURE), sometimes all you’ll need to do is point that out (maybe even anonymously.) For example, say the boss repeatedly expects you and others to work over 40 hours a week in a non-exempt position without paying overtime. Send her a copy of the section of the state law that clearly states she has to pay you overtime for this. I’m going to bet she’ll get the hint (though she might be mad about it).
  • If no, proceed to Question 2.

 

Question 2:  Is the aggravating behavior mostly stupid,  rude,  infantile, embarrassing…?

  • If yes, and you have a good relationship with the person, consider providing effective feedback in a way they’ll hear (see some of our earlier blog posts on effective communication). They might well have no idea how they come across, and appreciate the help.
  • If yes, and you don’t have a good relationship with the person, decide to separate yourself from what’s going on. You may not be able to do that in fact (you have to keep your job, I have to continue to interview a rude witness…). In this situation, you need to understand that the other person’s behavior is about them – not about you. Are they micromanaging? It’s because they can’t manage appropriately. Are they editing and re-editing until they have re-written your work and brought it back to where it was before the first edit? It’s because they don’t understand how to edit appropriately. In either case, it’s about them, not about you. Remember one of the great scenes in Muppet film Labyrinth? Once our heroine understands she does not have to buy into the goblin king’s definition of reality, she says, “You have no power over me!” And what happens? The labyrinth in which she believed she was trapped, disappears. Take back your power, and don’t allow the aggravator to define how you see the world.
  • If no, go to question 3.

 

Question 3: Is the aggravating behavior counterproductive to getting the work done, is it ineffective and inefficient?

  • If yes, and you have a good relationship with the person, consider offering feedback in a way they’ll her. But remember: no one likes to be told what they already know. So, if I know that the way I’m doing a project is inefficient, but it’s the way my boss is making me do it, hearing criticism from you will not help. So, be careful!
  • If yes, and you don’t have a good relationship with the person, remember this: unsolicited advice is rarely welcomed. If your boss wanted a critique of the company’s billing system, we’re sure he would have asked you. He didn’t. If your boss wanted to hear you discuss better hiring processes, she would have asked. She didn’t. Don’t needlessly aggravate people (especially people with power over you) by telling them how to do their jobs – when they didn’t ask you for advice. They’re unlikely to appreciate it. Just keep doing your work, let go of your ego in the situation, and stop making their inefficiency or ineffectiveness your problem. LET IT GO. Take a deep breath. Go back to your work and do it as well as you can.  And, if you can’t stand the aggravation, look for another job.

 

Remember: in this world, as long as you work with others, you will likely find some of those others aggravating in the way’s I’ve described here.  Sometimes you can effectively deal with those folks – but often you just need to stop giving them power over your emotions (i.e., stop letting them aggravate you) and LET IT GO!  Comments?  We’d like to hear from you! ~ Daphne Schneider

Solving Disputes with Specifics!

Have you ever had a conflict with a colleague that escalated, and seemed to be impossible to bring to resolution?

Consider this exchange:

Leslie: You’re acting so unprofessional, I just can’t believe it.

Devon: How can you say that? You’re being paranoid again.

Leslie: Me, paranoid? That’s the most irrational thing I’ve ever heard!  If you don’t apologize, I’m not continuing with this conversation.

Devon: You are so over-reacting!

What’s wrong with this exchange and why is it going nowhere to resolve the issues between these two colleagues? The answer is actually pretty simple: when one or both parties in a dispute use large, accusatory, general terms (“unprofessional,” “paranoid,” “irrational,” “over-reacting,”) the result is predictable.  It will end in an escalation of the situation as people become more defensive and emotional, and so less able to address whatever the real issues are.

What to do? If you find yourself in this kind of a dialogue (even if only one person is using such language), take the following steps:

  1. Slow down. Breathe deeply. Count to 10 (or 15 or 20).
  2. If you’re too emotional, you likely need to leave the situation till later – so do that. Explain, “I’m having a really hard time with our conversation right now. Can we get back to it in an hour?”
  3. If you stay in the conversation, name what’s happening, and ask that the conversation go a different way: “We’re both talking in generalities. Can we talk specifics?”
  4. Get a piece of paper and write down the specifics listed by you and the other person. For example, Leslie might say: “You don’t update me on projects, and then I look dumb when someone asks me a question.” (Write down: frequency of project updates.)
  5. Devon might say: “When you’re late to meetings, we have to back up and start over and it’s very frustrating.” (Write down: Leslie coming late to meetings.)
  6. Then, address each issue specifically, and agree on actions/behaviors to fix the problem. For example: Leslie commits to arriving at meetings on time or before they start, and agrees that if late, the meeting will not start over. Devon agrees to weekly Monday morning stand-up update meetings to give Leslie updates.  Always acknowledge the other person’s efforts to reach agreement, and point out where the agreements have been reached. For example, “I’m so glad we got to the bottom of our disagreement. I promise to get to meetings on time – but in case I mess up, I won’t expect you to start the meeting over.”                                                                         Remember: Stay away from generalities and accusations – and be specific with what you want and need.  Do you have other tips for getting resolution to workplace disagreements? Let us know! ~Daphne Schneider

The Toxic Employee: Six Self-Help Tips

In my prior posts, here and here, I discussed how to identify a toxic employee and steps management can take to address the problems they create. But what if management can’t or won’t do anything? The only remedy then is self-help.

Self-help can take a number of forms. It takes judgment to determine which approach is best and whether to try several at once or to do them one at a time. If you have co-workers who are also affected, it is best to work together to have a unified plan of action.

1. Regardless of what other steps you take, the first thing you need to do is to distance yourself emotionally from the toxic employee. Blaming others is a benchmark of toxicity and often you will feel that somehow it all is your fault. It’s not. When you start feeling anxious, tense, angry, or upset, take a deep breath, and say to yourself: “It’s not about me, it’s about them. I will not let them get to me” – or whatever works for you. The goal is to act from a place of strategy, not emotion, and to not get sucked into their games and drama.

2. The next step is to distance yourself from the toxic person physically as much as possible. Do discuss work-related matters as necessary, but keep it to work. If they begin a negative conversation, don’t engage with them – just drift away.  Don’t engage in “negative bonding” even if the two of you are on the same page on a particular issue.  Don’t listen to their gossip, badmouthing and complaining – again, just drift away. One person taking these steps may not make a difference, but if several co-workers do this, the toxic employee loses their audience and some of their power.

3. Another technique is just the opposite: be particularly nice to the toxic employee and try to include them and get their opinions as much as possible. Sounds counterintuitive but it can work. The trick is to encourage positive behaviors, while discouraging negative ones. As soon as they start saying something negative, you redirect the conversation: to a problem solving rather than complaining mode or to something other than whatever they’re saying. All the while, you behave as pleasantly and neutrally as you can. Eventually, if enough people do the same thing, you may be able to reduce the negative behaviors to a more manageable level.

4. On the other hand, if the toxic employee really crosses the line to the point that it’s affecting your or others’ work, reputations or careers, it may not be enough to just drift away on the one hand or “love bomb” them on the other. In these cases, you need to speak up. As with any difficult conversation, you want to avoid accusations (at least at first) and instead use your “I” language, e.g., “I find your negative comments be upsetting and not helpful. Is this what you want?”  The person may strike back or deny the truth of what you are saying. Acknowledge what they’ve said and repeat your message.

5. A variation on this is to serve as the witness who calls out negative behaviors toward someone else. Step in and say something like, “I don’t think it’s helpful for you to attack co-worker X” or “… for you to badmouth our manager so much. I think he’s doing a very decent job.”

6. What if the toxic employee is a true bully or clearly has a psychological problem? These situations are tough, particularly if the employee is vindictive and somehow has the ear of management.  In these cases, you will want to document specific comments and incidents over a period of time and bring this documentation to management.  If a group can do this, all the better. Your goal is to make it as difficult as possible for management to continue to ignore or condone the behaviors of a toxic employee.

What if it’s clear management won’t do anything? Maybe the offender is their son or the best sales person in the company. In these cases, you may not want to risk your job. Instead, you may need to just start looking for another one.

Do you have other ideas for addressing toxic employees?  ~Amy Stephson

 

Is Filing a Complaint the Best Answer?

I’ve conducted about 300 workplace investigations in my many years of doing this work. As might be expected, I’ve seen some patterns emerge. One of the most troubling ones I’ve found is when formal complaints of harassment or discrimination are made with virtually no facts to back up a case. Unfortunately, this can have the result of trivializing real and serious issues. Here are a couple of examples of what I’m talking about:

Example 1, Touchy-Feely Harley: several female employees make a sexual harassment complaint against Harley because he’s more ‘touchy-feely’ than they like. He occasionally puts his arm around their shoulders, sometimes stands pretty close when they’re talking, and has a habit of giving people a quick hug when he first sees them in the morning. The women get fed up and, rather than talking to him and telling him they don’t like to be touched and want their personal space respected, they file a sexual harassment complaint against him. This forces Human Resources to conduct (or have an outsider conduct) an investigation. In the end, the investigation shows that what happened did not come anywhere close to rising to the level of behavior that is “severe” or “pervasive” – the standard in the EEOC Guidelines. Harley is mortified – he says he had no idea he was offending anyone, and would have stopped if anyone had said anything to him – but no one did. All someone had to say was, “Harley, please don’t touch me or stand so close. It makes me uncomfortable.” He would have backed off.

Example 2, Sickly Matt: Matt has some legitimate health issues, and is sometimes absent for days because of them. He has made several disability discrimination complaints, each one being submitted after his supervisor asked him to change the way he worked or criticized his work in some way. When he makes a complaint, the supervisor rescinds the instruction or changes the critique while Human Resources investigates. And, each time he has made such a complaint, the investigation has found no discrimination. The cycle keeps repeating itself, because everyone (Matt, his supervisor, Human Resources) keep behaving the same way. A manager needs to talk with Matt and his supervisor. In this conversation they need to clarify Matt’s job, ensure he understands what he is expected to do and that his supervisor has the authority (and responsibility) to assign and direct his work, and help him correct things that are being done wrong. In that conversation Matt should share his point of view, and the supervisor should demonstrate understanding while still being clear about expectations. Though management certainly can’t interfere with Matt’s right to file a complaint, he should be encouraged to first try to work issues out with his supervisor – and be praised and rewarded when he does so. It may be necessary to have this conversation a number of times.

In the end, what’s the real problem here? Shouldn’t employees make harassment or discrimination complaints if they feel they’re being harassed or discriminated against?

The problem here is that more and more, rather than people talking with one another if one has an issue with another’s behavior, or taking another constructive problem-solving approach, they choose the complaint route – which of course immediately escalates any situation. Don’t get me wrong – some complaints of harassment or discrimination are absolutely legitimate. And, once a complaint of harassment or discrimination is made to a supervisor or manager, they have to treat it as a complaint and investigate it accordingly. But by too easily raising the issue to a compliant, often the real complaints are trivialized (like crying wolf) and a lot of damage (that could have been avoided) has been done to workplace relationships.

How can this be changed?
Obviously, you can’t tell employees they can’t file complaints. However, a fair percentage of those situations that I’ve investigated (way over 70%) could likely have been avoided if there had been strong and skilled management, employees with good, assertive communication skills and a workplace culture that rewards those who make serious attempts to work through difficult communication and interpersonal issues. You CAN create a workplace culture where people are taught how to discuss concerns with one another, and encouraged to do so. It takes thoughtful consideration of expectations, and it takes teaching managers, supervisors and employees assertive communication and problem-solving skills. It’s hard – but it’s worth it.

Have you encountered situations where complaints are filed instead of employees engaging in good problem-solving communication to work though the issue? Or have you been in workplaces where problem-solving of this kind was encouraged and rewarded? Either way, we’d like to hear what happened! ~Daphne Schneider

Preparing for Conflicts is Key!

I recently read a great piece of advice from one of my colleagues, Carol Bowser (http://www.managingconflict.com/.)   She’s a conflict expert, and suggested that we all prepare for conflict situations before they happen.  That’s a good idea since (1) we are highly likely to find ourselves in such a situation sometime and (2) when you’re in the midst of a conflict it’s really hard to come up with the right thing to say if you’re not prepared.  In other words, behaving effectively in a conflict situation is actually a skill that you can learn.

So, what does being prepared mean?  Taking Carol’s suggestions and expanding on them, here are some questions to ask when you find yourself in that conflict:

  1. What’s the issue (and do we both agree that’s the issue)?
  2. Why do I hink it’s an issue?  Why does the other person think it is?
  3. What are some possible solutions?
  4. What am I willing/able to do to make it better?
  5. What can we do together to make it better?

To apply these to a workplace example, say you’re the Marketing Manager in a company.  You and Susan, the Finance Specialist are having an argument about a budget line item for graphic design in the Marketing budget.  You want to spend most of it to purchase new software you need.  Susan says it can only be used for hiring a graphic designer for a project.

  1.  What’s the issue? You  and Susan agree that the issue is allowable use of the budgeted graphic design funds.
  2. Why do you think it’s an issue?  You’re thinking long-term about the department’s needs which would best be met by buying this software now.  Why do you think Susan think it’s an issue?  She seems to be tied to the rules, and these dollars are in a section of the budget which may only be used for consulting services.
  3. What are some possible solutions?  You and Susan brainstorm, and come up with the following:
    1. Expand the use of funds in this line of the budget.
    2. Transfer the funds to another part of the budget, likely leaving little available for consulting services.
  4.  What are you willing to do to make it better?  In talking with Susan it becomes apparent to you that expanding the allowable use of funds in this line item would be a longer term project, and you need the money for the software now.  You might want to propose this change in graphic design funds use as budget development begins for next year, but for now you decide that you’re willing to forgo consulting services monies and move the funds to another line in the budget from which you can purchase the software you need.
  5. What are you willing to do together with Susan? You decide to meet with the Finance Manager together to get the OK to move these funds.

As you can see, there’s a real system here – and it works.  Till they really become part of how you approach conflict, I’d recommend putting the steps on a note card or even a sticky note and always having them handy.  I used to have a sticky note with these steps on the bookshelf above my desk.  That way I’d have them handy whenever something came up.  I’d also recommend practicing (with your child, with your friend, with anyone where you find yourself in a disagreement – even talking to yourself as you drive…).  If you practice on “small” conflicts ir even invented conflicts, when real or bigger ones come up you’ll be prepared.

If you want to know more about this way of approaching conflict, check out the Harvard Negotiations Project    (http://www.pon.harvard.edu/category/research_projects/harvard-negotiation-project/ )  and the work they’ve done over many years, starting with the famous Getting to Yes.

Has this or another systems for working through conflicts been successful for you?  We’d love to know!  ~ Daphne Schneider

Is there life after conflict?

Like you, I’ve been listening to all the political messages over the past few days and weeks.  I’ve also been thinking about what we can learn from their tone (on all sides) that might transfer to  workplaces.  Now that the election is over, some of the winners are gloating and ridiculing the losers, while some losers batten down the hatches and make excuses for the outcome.  None of these are productive responses, especially since we then expect both sides to suddenly forget all the awful things that were said and work together toward a better future.  Unfortunately, we see very similar behavior in the workplace, especially when conflict happens and the resolution favors one side over the other.

Let’s take this situation: In the Company there’s a budget battle going on in which people are fighting for positions in their departments.  Marketing says that their work is critical to ensuring continuing growth and profitability, that they have smart, creative staff who are really committed to the Company.  They also say that Research and Development (R&D) has been totally mismanaged with expensive exploratory trips and software purchases, and that their staff are stupid in mis-reading the customers and wasting time and money on nonsense.

Meanwhile, the R&D folks are touting the great new products that have been developed by their brilliant employees, which the idiots in Marketing can’t seem to understand because they’re too wrapped up in show and totally lacking in substance.  They’re saying that lagging sales are all Marketing’s fault; Marketing is saying it’s all R&D’s fault for wasting time and money and developing unpopular products.

The Executive Team and CEO finally decide on the budget, cutting R&D rather drastically and putting more money into Marketing. Of course, Marketing is thrilled.  They won!  R&D is hurt, angry, and feeling misunderstood, betrayed and marginalized.  They lost.  Then the CEO directs the two departments to work together closely to ensure success.  After months of mudslinging, is that even possible?  Probably not.  And who really loses?  The Company does.

Is there another way?  I’d suggest there is. The Company needs to create a culture based on the “Five A’s”:

  • Assume positive intent on the part of all parties: everyone wants the Company to succeed.  Everyone wins when the Company is successful.  Everyone loses when it is not.
  • Argue vigorously for issues, perspectives, and points of view while being very gentle with people.  No name calling.  No attacks.  Everyone loses when people are attacked and labels are thrown around (stupid, incompetent, useless,…)  Everyone wins when issues are analyzed and vetted for the best possible outcome for the Company and decisions are made on facts, not personalities.
  • Allow everyone to save face.  People in the workplace have to be able to continue to work together effectively on the other side of the conflict.  If the relationship is torn so badly that one side (or both) believes they have been betrayed, maligned, insulted, or otherwise seriously hurt, working together for the good of the Company becomes very difficult, if not impossible.  People who have lost face look for ways to get revenge – and when they find them (and they do), everyone loses.
  • Acknowledge the past, but move on to the future.  Things will move forward if both winners and losers respect one another’s perspectives and past conflicts, but commit to coming together (that means both sides give some) for the best future for the Company.
  • Advance everyone’s interests by building personal relationships on an ongoing basis so that future conflicts (which are guaranteed to occur) can be worked through and best outcomes achieved.

There will always be conflicts in the workplace, and in our personal and political lives.  There is never enough time, money or staff.  There are different beliefs and values.  It’s not about eliminating these conflicts.  It’s about learning to build relationships and focusing on debating  issues rather than maligning people.  The better we learn to do this in all aspects of our lives, the more likely we can create a greater good for all.

What are your thoughts about how to create a good outcome for all after heated differences?  Please share your ideas!  ~Daphne Schneider