During our US travels, we spoke to a woman struggling with a step up in her career. Ambitious and experienced, she was anxious to prove her value in a new environment, at a new level of seniority. Things got off to a rocky start. Inappropriate behaviour from a colleague left her feeling shaken and vulnerable. Uncertain how to respond, she overlooked the issue and tried to move forward.
Her confidence took a nosedive.
What began as a distressing encounter with a single individual, quickly snowballed. She worried that her colleagues were judgemental and disrespectful, and described an overwhelming belief that she couldn’t be herself at work. Her workplace demeanour had changed; she was questioning her abilities and contemplating quitting her dream job.
When she finished sharing, a leadership coach in our group asked ‘how much of what you just said is factual, and how much is your perception of what’s going on?’ Shocked into silence, she eventually exclaimed, ‘I have no idea!’.
Fight, flight and freeze: an instinct that doesn’t always serve us
Here’s the deal: our brains struggle to distinguish between physical and psychological threats. When faced with conflict, our fight, flight or freeze instinct is triggered, and we can lose our ability to reason. This response automatically kicks in to defend ourselves from danger. It works well when faced with a physical threat… But not so well in the workplace.
This woman’s brain (quite rightly) interpreted a harmful experience as an attack. However, in retreat mode, she viewed all subsequent interactions at work as threats. As a result, she treated colleagues with suspicion and changed her behaviour. This, in turn, probably impacted how others interacted with her, creating a negative and self-perpetuating spiral.
Can you relate? Conflict is a complex beast.
We all have different thresholds for conflict
Women, in particular, are socialised to be people pleasers. Depending on our life experiences, anything from sending back food at a restaurant to receiving feedback at work can sit well outside our comfort zones. Open disagreement, debate and direct communication at work? When interpreted as conflict, it can cause stress hormones to go into overdrive.
Conflict management is critical to career success
At work, we spend almost 3 hours a week in conflict. The ability to navigate different personalities, opinions and communication styles becomes more critical the further up the career ladder we climb. However, the majority of leaders have never received basic conflict management training. Even innocuous misunderstandings can quickly intensify when we don’t know how to deal with them. So, in Powrsuit style, here’s a micro class for the next time you find yourself in a typical sticky workplace situation:
1. Reframe conflict
Do you know the most common cause of conflict? Humans coming together to solve problems. Yes, that’s right; it’s inevitable. Disagreements around ideas, strategies and execution are a normal and productive part of working with others. This is especially true in high-performing teams, where members are hugely passionate about achieving the mission – and have strong opinions on how to get there.
When invited to a situation with a high likelihood of conflict, walk in prepared for it! Here are some simple ways to do that:
- Your attitude will impact how things progress, so embrace the power of positivity.
- Prepare. Ask for any pre-reading in advance, or have conversations in the lead-up so you arrive ready to participate.
- Be clear on the goal. Focus on the outcome instead of battling over whose idea wins. If the desired result is unclear, clarify it so everyone’s on the same page, then draw all ideas back to it.
- Observe. Every workplace has official (and unofficial) cultures. We love the Dangerous Animals of Product Management as an example of how personalities sway team dynamics. During ‘robust discussions’, take note of these dynamics and identify the causes of conflict instead of focusing on individuals (e.g. a lack of structure can lead to extroverts taking up most of the airspace). Addressing these issues can reduce room for frustration.
2. Assume good intentions
Collaborative environments, feedback sessions and different personalities are breeding grounds for misunderstandings. We have no idea what’s happening in other people’s lives, and often, we don’t stop to check in on our emotional state either. We all have different styles, expectations and energy levels – enthusiasm can be mistaken for aggression and feedback, a personal attack.
An easy way to minimise everyday conflict? Assume positive intent. While most of us are genuinely well-intentioned, we can all put our foot in it. Did someone communicate a little too sharply for your tastes? Start by assuming it was a misunderstanding (or at least unintentional). Take a deep breath and consider the wider context. How would you address the conflict differently if you assumed any offence was accidental?
3. Address small things quickly so they don’t boil up
A lot of workplace conflict could be avoided by not letting minor issues stack up until resentment overflows. A quick rebalance solves conflict at its source and usually creates stronger working relationships #Trust. Don’t forget to utilise your personal board of directors here; some rapid-fire advice may help.
4. Initiate a conversation
Yep, the scariest step of all, but, as Jenny, Powrsuit advisor and co-CEO of Excellent, puts it: Clear is kind.
Think about the other person’s preferred method of communication (written? In person? A quick walk ‘n talk?), and make a genuine, open approach. Instead of seeing it as conflict resolution, reframe your followup conversation as research. Be curious; try to understand their perspective. An example starter: ‘I love your excitement, but it felt a little hurtful when you said ‘[whatever they said]’. I want to avoid an accidental misunderstanding, so keen to hear your perspective.’
5. Listen to understand
Give the other person plenty of space to respond and make sure to repeat their points to ensure you’ve understood. If needed, ask clarifying questions throughout the conversation. Agree on a few changes you can both try. Compromise doesn’t mean you agree entirely with your colleague – you can hold tight to your personal values, beliefs, and opinions and still meet halfway.
Stop the spiral in its tracks
At the start of this article, we shared a story of workplace harassment that wasn’t dealt with. There are no excuses for that kind of behaviour (and we’ll cover some tips on addressing it in the future). However, as the narrative unfolded, a more typical scenario emerged: miscommunications, differing expectations and perceptions spiralling out of control. Many of us can relate to this. When left unchecked, this type of conflict can (unnecessarily) take a toll on our mental well-being and even impact our career trajectory and relationships.
Nipping it in the bud is critical. Like every other element of leadership, clear, kind conflict resolution is an ongoing practice. Address small issues quickly. We’d love to hear what strategies you’ve found effective – email us and we’ll share them with the Powrsuit community.
30 second action:
The next time you go to complain to a friend or colleague about a frustration with someone else, stop. Instead, think about how you might raise it directly with them in a positive, productive way and try that instead.
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