Category Archives: Workplace Conflict

Stressed by Colleagues who Disagree with You?

Workplaces can be hazardous to your emotional and mental health – especially when you work with folks you don’t necessarily like or who don’t see things the way you do.  What to do?

Let’s assume you’d feel better about where you work if you were less stressed by those around you.  And, let’s assume that you’re the only person you really control.  Here’s my suggestion:  first of all, refuse to take things personally.  Rather, assume an attitude of wonder and civility.  Here’s what I mean:

  1. As I said, when someone says something that offends you, or with which you vehemently disagree, listen but refuse to take it in or to let it become part of you.  Refuse to take it personally even if you think it was meant as an insult.  Rather, as you  listen,  suspend judgment and maintain a sense of wonder:  Think, “I wonder why she said that?  I wonder what she meant by that?”  Then talk with her to find out!
  2.  Remain flexible: No one is always right (that means you, too, could be wrong – I know I sometimes am).  So listen to other points of view and retain the right to change your mind if you’re swayed by another opinion.  Expand your view of the world and its many complex issues.  I’m not suggesting you have to make a radical change in what you believe, but remain open to hearing another perspective.  Few complex issues are black and white.  Understand that there’s gray and that you can see some of that gray without giving up any integrity.  Remember: for every complex problem there is a simple, easy to understand wrong solution.
  3. When interacting with someone, demonstrate empathy.  Work to really listen, and listen actively: don’t form your responses or criticize the other person’s comments in your head while they’re talking.  Work to understand where they’re coming from and why (understanding is not the same as agreeing) and communicate your understanding to them.  Work to understand both the content of what they’re saying and the feeling behind it.  Check your understanding of what they’re feeling with a comment like, “So you feel angry that everyone has to attend diversity training…” and listen to their response without judgment.  Change your understanding of their feeling based on what they tell you.
  4. Never stoop to name-calling or labeling.  Using words like “racist” or “hate-monger” or “slut” or “idiot” only serves to break down communication.  These words never help create civil discourse among reasonable people, and they’re guaranteed to increase workplace stress.  If someone else is using such a term in conversation with you, do not take it personally.  Use the tips above, and bring the conversation to a more civil place.
  5. Finally, never assume you know more about what’s really going on in the other person’s head than they do.  You will inevitably lose that argument.  So, don’t tell others they’re unmotivated or have a bad attitude or feel this way or that.  You can only watch how they behave and listen to their words.  Other than that, you don’t really know what the other person is thinking or feeling.

In yesterday’s Seattle Times, Charles C. Camosy, assistant professor of Christian Ethics at Fordham University in New York City and author of “Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization” provides a great review of these and other tips for creating dialogue and understanding with those who see the world differently than we do.  Check it out.

Do you have other ideas for interacting successfully in the workplace with those who disagree with us?  We’d love to hear them!  ~Daphne Schneider

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Using the Right Bait

How do you get someone else to change their behavior?  That’s an ongoing challenge for many of us, whether we’re first line supervisors or colleagues, top level managers or parents.  You simply can’t make someone else change unless they have some incentive to change. 

Unfortunately what many of us do is identify our motivation for the other person to change, and assume that’s their motivation.  For example:

  • I ask you not to yell at me because it hurts my feelings (and I assume you care about that).
  • I tell you to clean your workspace because I hate starting my shift in your messy space (and I assume you’ll do it just because???)
  • You’re told to fill out the medical history form because that’s the physical therapist’s policy before they’ll treat you, but you’re there for a sore leg (and not interested in providing information about other parts of your body).
  • You tell your subordinate to stop taking extended breaks (and assume, because you’re the supervisor, he will comply). 

All of these sound like reasonable requests and might work if the other person is amenable to doing something a different way.  However, if the other person is resistant, they are unlikely to work because the incentive is not there. 

So, what do you do when you’re faced with someone who won’t do what you want them to?  We are often tempted to threaten…do it this way or else.  However, most threats are ineffective – and are ignored.  For example,

  • If I already don’t like you I may not care if you threaten never to talk to me again if I yell. 
  • If I know our supervisor doesn’t care whether or not my workspace is messy, your threat to tell her on me (kind of like third grade) will have no effect. 
  • The likelihood they’ll refuse to treat your sore leg if you don’t  fill out their form is…zero.
  • And even if a threat might work, it will only work if you’re watching.  Without my buy-in, the threat to fire me if I’m late returning from break will only be effective in getting me back on time if I know you’re watching every single time I go on break.

The only really effective way to get someone else to change their behavior when they are resistant is to find a reason they will want to change.  I recently saw a brilliant version of this truism at a wonderful restaurant in Colorado.  On a card tent on each table was the following small note:

MOBILE PHONE USERS…

Your call is important.

For your privacy,

Please use the lobby area.

That’s absolutely brilliant.  We’ve all been annoyed when the person at the next table talks loudly on their cell phone.  And we’ve all seen the signs that say “No cell phone use here” or even, “Please turn off your phone while in this area.”  And we’ve all seen people ignore these signs because they’re about the establishment and the other customers, not about their need to use the phone.  However, this restaurant notice was clearly designed to address the needs and interests of the person using the phone – and there was not a single person in the restaurant on the phone.  It works.  One of my favorite sayings is, “When you go fishing, what kind of bait do you use?  What you like or what the fish likes?”  Clearly, that applies to our interactions with people as well as fish.  Find what will work as an incentive for the other person, and they will change. 

Have you given someone a reason they care about to do something they might not otherwise do?  We’d love to hear it!  ~Daphne Schneider

“She’s Mean to Me!” The Shattering Conclusion

My two previous posts discussed how to help employees who complain about interpersonal problems with their co-workers, addressing both some general principles and the GROW approach to coaching.  This week, I conclude with a discussion of some of the challenges you are likely to face when coaching employees in this type of situation.

Challenge One:  The employee will want you to solve the problem for them.  The essence of coaching, however, is that the client (or “coachee”) has to own and at least attempt to resolve the problem himself or herself.  Feel free to tell the employee this — most will understand the principle, however reluctantly.  In addition, as noted in Part 2 of this series, when you work with the employee to set goals, be sure that they are something that the employee him or herself can accomplish.

Challenge Two: You will ask the employee a coaching question and get a blank stare in return. There’s an art to asking a good question — check out an earlier post of mine for some tips.  Even the best questions, however, often result in a blank stare, or “I don’t know.”  You’ll be tempted to leap in with  your own hard-earned wisdom. Don’t. Instead, first try to let silence do the work for you.  If the pause gets too long, you can then try to get the employee’s analytical juices going using prompts such as, “What’s the first thing that comes to your mind?” or  “How did you feel when I asked you that question?” 

Challenge Three.  The employee will remain emotional and want to be vindicated.  It’s important to acknowledge an employee’s feelings. At some point, however, you’ll want to tell the employee that he or she needs to approach the problem from a strategic and problem-solving standpoint, not an emotional one.  You can tell the employee that if there is wrongdoing on the part of co-workers, you will address it, but you want to emphasize that often interpersonal problems are a result of differing perceptions and miscommunication, not intentional wrongdoing. 

Challenge Four: The employee continues to use the H-word. By this we mean, of course, the word “harassment.” As in, “He keeps harassing me no matter what I do.”  Here you can try a couple of things.  You can explain that the term “harassment” has a specific legal meaning not applicable to the situation (assuming it’s not) and is not helpful in solving the problem because it is an “emotion” word.  You can also tell the employee that the word “harassment” is vague and he or she needs to describe what’s going on with much more specificity if the problem is going to be effectively addressed.

Challenge Five: The employee tries to avoid agreeing to specific action steps. Here you’ll just have to get pushy and help the employee come up with specific steps that will advance his or her goals and that are within his or her control.  You’ll also want to use the motivational technique that’s part of the GROW method (On a scale of 1 to 10, how likely is it you will do this … ?)   

These are just a few of the challenges that come to mind — coaching is not easy. But as I noted in my first post, it’s well worth the investment of time and effort.  Have you had challenging coaching experiences? Do share them!

Happy Holidays to All. We’ll be back after the New Year.  ~Amy Stephson

“She’s Mean to Me!”

I recently taught a class to supervisors on improving employee behaviors and performance through coaching. Part of the class consisted of practice coaching sessions. I was a little surprised at the topic the class suggested for these sessions: coaching  employees who complain that others are mean to them, criticize them, or exclude them from the team.

I shouldn’t have been. Everyone who does HR related work recognizes that American workplaces are not that different from American high schools (junior highs?) in the way many employees interact with each other. There are cliques, popular and unpopular kids, teacher’s pets (or perceived favorites), and so on. These kinds of problems hurt productivity and drive management crazy. They also can lead to bullying and harassment complaints.

So what’s a supervisor or manager to do? First, you want to determine if it’s potentially a harassment complaint, i.e., the co-workers’ behaviors are allegedly motivated the complainant’s race, gender, religion, etc. Do not hesitate to just ask, “Why do you think X is doing that to you? Do you think it’s because of your [protected class status]? What makes you think that?” If it seems like it may be a harassment complaint, follow your policy and procedures.

Second, if you think there is actual bullying going on, you may need to step in and also investigate.  Coaching the target may or may not be an appropriate response. 

If you’re pretty sure it’s not a harassment complaint or real bullying, you can then move into coaching mode. Working with an employee on this type of issue can be very challenging, but it helps to keep a few basic supervisory goals and methods in mind:

  • First, to the extent possible, you want to help the employee solve the problem himself. You can provide coaching in the background, but it’s better to not intervene unless you decide after further discussion and thought that you need to either talk to the other person, facilitate a conversation between the two (or three, four, or more) parties, or both.
  • Second, you want to help the employee see how she may be contributing to the problem. It almost always takes two, and it’s not “blaming the victim” to explore the conversational “dance” that goes on between the complainant and the others and see where she may be affecting the outcome.
  • Third, you want to help the employee see beyond his interpretation of the other person’s behaviors and explore other possibilities. Did the other person really glare at the employee or was she having a attack of heartburn? “It may not be about you at all” is a helpful concept to explore.
  • Finally, you want to work with the employee to come up with an action plan, even if it’s just baby steps,  to build on what you discussed in the first meeting. You also want to schedule another meeting: at least three meetings total is a good goal.

In future columns, I’ll discuss a more specific coaching framework for this type of complaint as well as some of the challenges.  Coaching may seem too time consuming, but when it works, it’s an investment that is well worth the effort.  ~Amy Stephson

Revenge in the Workplace

Recently, I was lamenting to a colleague about employees who behave badly toward others in the workplace. Later that day, he directed me to an article by Eric Jaffe entitled, “The Complicated Psychology of Revenge” in the Association for Psychological Science’s Observer. A fascinating article, it made me think about how revenge may play a part in some employee behaviors.

According to the article, the person who focuses on revenge after an affront – or exacts the revenge – is usually worse off than the person who lets the affront go. Why? Revenge does not dissolve the anger and hostility that led to it and in fact “keeps it green.” The only exception to this is when the target of revenge understands why the act has occurred and doesn’t escalate things by getting angry in return.

So how might this play out in the workplace? Most of the time, employees who behave badly toward others, particularly toward a supervisor or manager, feel that the target has injured them in some way. It may be only a perceived slight (“He never says hello to me because I’m a low level employee”) or an actual slight (“She did not take my suggestion” or “He gave me a poor performance review”). Whatever the cause, the employee is now hurt and feels justified in exacting ….revenge.

This revenge can take many forms: a complaint about the wrongdoer, insubordination, poor performance, and so on. It may even rise to the level of making the perpetrator the dread “toxic employee.” Yet usually, as predicted by studies, the revenge doesn’t help. The employee remains as miserable as ever.

What this suggests is that when coaching or investigating employees who are behaving badly, it might be helpful to surface the idea that their reaction to the slight they are feeling is to seek revenge. From there, one can explore how revenge doesn’t usually work to improve a situation. This has to be handled delicately, of course, but it seems like a potentially fruitful way to analyze a number of difficult workplace problems.

And where appropriate, maybe it would help if the target of the revenge acknowledges to the perpetrator that this is what is happening – with or without accepting blame – to try to end the cycle of continuing hostility. 

If potential workplace violence is involved in a situation, of course, we may want to be careful employing this type of workplace psychology.

What are your thoughts about revenge in the workplace? ~Amy Stephson

Recognizing and Addressing “Emotion” Words

When investigating, mediating, or otherwise attempting to resolve a workplace conflict, it’s helpful – indeed critical – to recognize “emotion” words.  What are emotion words?  Words that contain more heat than light and that therefore call for further exploration of what’s going on. Another word for them: hyperbole.

Two classic emotion words are “always” and “never.”  When an employee says that something “always” (or its cousin, “constantly”) happens, it’s time to ask for specifics, i.e., how many times has the event occurred or comment been made?  Despite having conducted thousands of investigative interviews, I remain surprised at how often the answer is “two or three times,” “three or four times,” and the like.  Similarly, with “never,” it’s helpful to probe a little further to see if it’s really never, or just “not recently.”

Another example is “yelled” as in, “He yelled at me.”  The dictionary meaning of “yell” is to say something very loudly.  Yet many people will say they were “yelled at” to describe any negative or critical comment directed toward them.  Therefore, when you hear that someone was yelling, it’s always wise to ask the person to demonstrate exactly how loud it was. They themselves will often then recognize that it wasn’t loud, just upsetting, intense, or rude.

One more: duration of time.  People will often say that something lasted for “an hour,” or “at least 20 minutes,” or some other fairly long period of time, when they’re describing a negative event (such as being yelled at).  In these situations, I often count out seconds (one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand, etc.) and then ask again. The resulting number is usually very much smaller.

So does this tendency to exaggerate mean that the person is not credible? Not necessarily. It just means that many people express the emotional content of an event through hyperbole and emotional words.  And while it’s essential to separate out the emotion from the facts, it’s important to nonetheless recognize the emotion behind the words and take this into account as you figure out what to do with the crazy situation before you.

What are some other emotion words you’ve encountered in the workplace?  ~Amy Stephson

Does Teambuilding Work?

Many employers – be it to address conflict or low morale or just to improve sales – provide teambuilding to their employees.  A recent LinkedIn forum explored the effectiveness of such efforts.  It confirmed what I myself have observed: done properly, team building can work well, done cursorily or poorly, it can be worse than doing nothing. 

This week I want to discuss what kinds of teambuilding don’t work. Next week I’ll address what elements are needed for teambuilding to be successful.

So what doesn’t work?

  •  Off the shelf, one size fits all programs. Everyone hates to be manipulated and patronized. Any program that doesn’t address the actual people and problems in issue has to be both because it won’t respect the complexity and individuality of the employees and their issues.
  • Games, fun activities, sing-alongs, outdoor challenge programs.  They may be fun, but they won’t solve real problems. And for many participants, they won’t even be fun. 
  • Working with an overly large group. You just can’t be effective if there are more than 10 or so employees in the group.  Too many variables, too many voices.
  • Teambuilding as a substitute for addressing performance or behavior issues.  A day of Kumbaya won’t help if the manager is incompetent, a couple of bullies run the shop, employees are screaming at each other because they can’t keep up with the workload, etc. 
  • A quick fix.  A few hours or even a full day of anything, even quality teambuilding, will not be enough to address serious or longstanding issues (and aren’t they all?). 
  • An unskilled leader.  It’s not easy to facilitate effectively.  One difficult, self-centered, angry or volatile employee can sabotage the whole enterprise and only a skilled leader can handle this type of participant.  Which also brings us back to a couple of bullets ago: teambuilding cannot substitute for addressing behavior issues.
  • Management outsources the process with little involvement.  We all know that it starts at the top. If management is not invested in the process, the employees will not be either.

What else do you think dooms teambuilding to failure?  ~Amy Stephson