Conflicts of Interest
Everything you ever wanted to know about conflicts at home, at work, or in the neighborhood.
When companies consolidate departments or lay-off employees, the action often results in administrative support staff working with multiple bosses. Though the strategic goal is to save money, the act can backfire if the new normal doesn’t quickly fall into place. Assistants play a critical role in how swiftly that happens. Here are a few tips to help:
1) Acknowledge that bosses are unique individuals. Managers don’t all come with the same personality, or work style, or expectations. It’s difficult enough to create a smooth routine with a single manager, let alone two or three. If you’re trying to make your work relationships “one size fits all” you risk not getting the most out of your manager in terms of what she’s willing to do for you. Spend some time getting to know what makes a particular boss tick and you’re well on your way to success.
2) Openly discuss sharing your time and talents. One-on-one working relationships can be tricky on their own but when you add in another boss the solid and dotted lines on the org chart can feel more like a twisted path to Satan’s playground than the reporting structure they’re meant to describe. Relax. Meet with the managers in the same room at the same time with the intention of creating a plan that makes sense for all parties. Conduct the meeting without whining or complaining or pointing fingers. Start by letting them know you’re interested in everyone looking their best and then be specific about items that may fall through the crack or any awkwardness you anticipate regarding what to work on when. Have at least three solutions ready and let the conversation go from there.
3) Throw favoritism out the window. Don’t worry about trying to be fair in the sense of “split down the middle” fair. Instead, concentrate on needs and expectations. If one boss requires less, so be it. If your managers are pretty equal in terms of workload, then talk with them about your ideas on how you’ll prioritize and then get their buy-in on the plan so that you can refer to it later if needed.
4) Be flexible. Everyone knows there’s a certain amount of shifting, adjusting, and modifying that takes place with any change at work. Accept that. If Plan A isn’t working, be okay with going back to the drawing board and reworking, rediscovering, and revising.
5) Stay focused on the work. What you produce is the currency that others are judging your bosses on. Sure, they’re graded on their leadership or people skills, but if at the end of the day they don’t make their sales quotas or are late with reports, they’re penalized. And, you don’t want to be the one responsible for that! Managers have been known to hang on to administrative assistants who have rough personalities but get the work done more than they retain assistants who have great people skills but don’t accomplish anything. (Disclaimer, this is not permission for you to behave poorly, it’s simply an example of how important the work is.)
Lastly, a good thing to remember about managers (or any individual coworker for that matter) is that people are never against you, they’re simply for themselves. Regardless of the reporting structure, look for ways to let people know you have their back. They, in turn, will have yours.
So, that happened. I haven’t written a blog in months, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t experienced conflict, used my skills to resolve conflict, or shown my worst self during a conflict. Let me tell you what’s been going on.
About 16 months ago, my significant other and I agreed to take on an adventure. A distant relative we hadn’t seen for a while delivered a baby boy 10 weeks early. The family was surprised to discover that the little guy tested positive for some pretty significant drugs and Child Protective Services (known to us as The Department) stepped in. The Department’s preference is that a child be placed with family before being placed with strangers. After an initial pass on the opportunity my man and I agreed to the adventure. And, what an adventure it turned out to be!
We were naïve enough to believe that within a few months the parents of BabyBoy would make their way through a conditional to-do list and get on with properly raising a child. We were also ignorant enough to believe that The Department was interested in doing what was best for the child. Uh, not so much. It turns out that addiction is predictably unpredictable and The Department coddles the parents, not the baby. Who knew?!
My conflict management skills have been put to the test in ways I never imagined. Walking on eggshells, sitting in courtrooms listening while our character was ripped to shreds, and living with the biggest pile of unknown we’ve ever seen is just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to taking bullets from people we thought would be our support system, we’ve now come to realize that the foster care system here is a colossal failure. It’s a joke, people; which is difficult to swallow when your mediation training encourages you to get the truth out so you can resolve real issues. There is very little reality here—just a whole lot of façade, appearances, and glossing over. So sad.
Meanwhile, in the midst of dodging poison darts and monsters in the dark, conflict within our own relationship needed to be addressed. With our different approaches to just about everything, it took a lot of work not to turn on each other while we maneuvered our way through nonsensical processes and absurd decisions. Yet, we’re still standing and I think it’s safe to say that without a willingness to communicate as adults and a solid foundation in mediation we wouldn’t be here. That’s not to say that we never flopped around the carpet and threw colorful tantrums. We simply allowed each other the space to do those things; knowing that we had the capacity to compose ourselves and move on when the time was right.
So, here we are nearing the end of the ride. Even though BabyBoy is now a toddler and returning to his parents in a few days, we can’t imagine a time when we won’t shake our heads at a system that professes to be something it isn’t. Our last words to The Department have definitely shown how immature we can be. And, honestly, in this moment I’m okay with that. So what if I know better, have been trained to act better, and have taught others how they can understand better? In the future I promise to concentrate on the joy and sweetness BabyBoy brought to our lives but for now I’m not apologizing for speaking poorly about a process that took us through eight caseworkers, three visit supervisors, seven department managers, five social workers, and one adorable little soul who we love with all our hearts. Moving on…
The family disputes I mediate can be heart-wrenching. They’re especially tough when I can see how much each parent wants to (needs to!) share with their children the truth as they see it; like when Dad hasn’t paid child support in months but is taking the kids out on his new boat or when Mom moves the kids to a new school and informs the staff not to share information with Dad. Frustration boils over and emotions run high so it can’t be surprising when the children either overhear icky information or get stuck listening to a diatribe delivered by a parent who feels wronged. It’s not surprising but, not to mince words, it’s wrong.
My opinion is that it can be difficult for us as parents to realize that our kids won’t always be children. We need to keep in mind that there will be plenty of time in the future to share whatever sordid details we feel are necessary when the little ones can see things from an adult perspective and can respond to us with the same level of candor we employ to tell our stories.
At some point down the line we parents can create an opportunity to cozy up on the couch with a glass of wine, some comfy throw pillows, and talk about the events that took place over the years as a collective experience; the good, the bad, and the ugly. We can talk about the fact that without the other parent we wouldn’t have had such wonderful children. We can share any good memories our previous partner created throughout the years. And, yes, we can talk about the time the ex- drained the bank account and how it took us years to get our credit straight. Or you can spill the beans about the serial cheating that went on and how devastated you were when you found out about it. You can tell the truth as you see it; just not now.
Why wait? Other than avoiding the possibility of really messing up your kids now, keep in mind that sharing the sordid details in retrospect rather than in the moment gives you the benefit of applying all of your life experience, wisdom, and knowledge to the account. You can share how hard it was to hold your tongue every time something happened, but then you get to add how glad you are that you did just that.
I say buy that bottle of wine now; and when you’re tempted to blurt remind yourself how much better wine becomes with age. Holding off on damaging words will do the same for you!
Here’s a question to “Ask Amy” at the Chicago Tribune that really hit home for me on both a professional and personal level. Since I am often asked the same question, I’ll share what I think is a great answer…
Dear Amy: I have often heard that we must love our family — no matter what. Love to me means (at the minimum) mutual respect, compassion, kindness, joy and truth. If there is someone in your family that does not have these attributes, do you have to “love” them?
I have a very large family and there are some that I can truly say I do not love. Some of them I don’t even like. With the family members I am close to, I can meet up with them and it feels like not a second has gone by since our last meeting. We enjoy crushing embraces and long, wonderful talks. With the family members I am not close to, our relationship is strained. When we are together, I always engage with them because I do care, even if I don’t like them very much.
I have watched my daughters say “I love you” to seemingly casual friends, so it seems the concept of real love may have been diminished.
I am interested to find out if other families have this same situation and struggle with the concept of love — or if they just shrug it off to keep the family peace.
What do you think?
The most important part of her response:
To address your question, no, you don’t have to love — or like —every member of your family. What you do have to do, occasionally, is tolerate them. The situation you describe is common to just about every family I know, including my own.
Families are like any group of people — some people are awesome, some are troublesome and some can make you feel like every family gathering is Satan’s cocktail party. This beautiful and challenging complication is what keeps therapists (and advice-givers) in business.
My significant other came home today and told me that his supervisor fired him and then hired him back about 30 minutes later. Unlike me, my guy has a job that requires heavy lifting, defending your turf, and probably some sort of expertise in spitting, swearing, and scratching; he works in construction. There aren’t a lot of “let’s sit down and talk through our differences” moments in his line of work and any attempt on my part to give ideas about how he and Mr. Big might resolve their issues just falls on deaf ears. The two drive each other nuts and a few weeks ago I let my man know that I couldn’t take him coming home every day going on and on about everything that’s wrong with Mr. Big and asked that he be selective about sharing details (i.e., stop complaining if you’re not willing to do something about it).
So, when I was told about the firing, I moved my line in the sand regarding listening to painful work stories and gave my full attention. The short version of the tale is that the two had been at odds all week, they had a blow out on the phone, the boss said “pack your stuff and go”, and then he called back 30 minutes minute later to tell my guy to stay.
As my partner continued with the story, he told me that after the apology the two basically fell all over each other with understanding and compassion (my words, not his). That’s great! Except neither one of them took the opportunity to make agreements about how they’ll move forward, tell the truth about what isn’t working, or put some real stuff on the table to sort through and discuss. Grrr.
Something I know about conflict is that when emotions are high, reasoning is low. But, this event taught me another way to look at that. I realized there may be a conflict sweet spot, if you will, in which the parties have just enough emotion to talk about the icky stuff but not so much that their thinking is off or their hearing doesn’t work. I wish (really wish!) that these two men had taken the opportunity to get a few things straight while in that sweet spot. They missed a chance to look at both the big and detailed picture of their working relationship and ask something of each other. Instead, they kissed and made up way to soon and next week we’ll be back to square one. I guess I’ll have to find a stick with which to draw another line in the sand about work stories.
If you’ve ever had any kind of training in how to get along with others, you were probably taught some basic tactics to apply when attempting to resolve an issue. Most of the time, what you know works; and thank goodness the strategies are universal and fit just about any situation. When things go well it’s great, but every once in a while you may find yourself a little perplexed when you try to apply what you were taught and your efforts fail. Three of the most basic conflict resolution approaches don’t always work and may require a bit more effort on your part to achieve success.
Listening. Simply remaining quiet while the other person blathers on about the situation might not get you any closer to resolution. Nor does artfully repeating what you’ve heard. I know that it’s Communication 101 to do those things but unless you understand the purpose and have the wherewithal to do something with the information you’re receiving, you look insincere and run the risk of making the conflict worse. Plus, letting people go on and on and around and around repeating themselves can keep you stuck on a dizzying rollercoaster ride.
At some point you may need to ask the speaker what it will take for her to know that you’ve heard, understood, and are considering her point of view. Saying that you’d like for her not to have repeat herself is a good way for her to get the message that she’s, well, repeating herself.
Being Empathetic. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes doesn’t work if you really can’t empathize with how he’s feeling. When you don’t share a background, you don’t share a world perspective, or you simply don’t get where they’re coming from, you may end up putting your own spin on how you think they should feel, react, or behave. And, that’s rarely a good thing.
Instead, you may want to be honest that you understand there are different approaches to every situation and that maybe the two of you are just too far apart on this one. Move the discussion to talking about what you do have in common or how you can approach future situations in which your perspectives span the Grand Canyon.
Compromise. Splitting things down the middle is often the starting place with compromise. It’s a great way to resolve things when you’re buying a used car, but not so much when it comes to time with the kids or recognition for work product.
Redefine what it means it to compromise. Let go of the “you give a little, I give a little” definition and look at the bigger picture. Sometimes where we need to compromise most is with our own expectations of others.
I help resolve all sorts of conflicts but the ones I get questioned about the most are the ones having to do with the workplace. Granted, most of the questions come in the form of hushed tones coupled with clandestine gestures that I’m supposed to recognize as some sort of universal sign language, but these inquiries always remind me of just how difficult it is sometimes to maneuver through our jobs. So, back to the topic I go.
You know that being an employee isn’t always easy so just imagine what it’s like to be the poor shmuck stuck between the higher ups and those she manages. Often she’s damned if she does and then damned if she doesn’t. There’s no pleasing everyone all the time, right? Even so, there are middle managers who do some pretty ineffective things that chip away at their reputations as leaders. For example:
Blames the team. When called on the carpet for lost sales or poor performance, blaming the team only makes the manager look ridiculous. If the group of people you’re managing is so awful, what are you doing with them? Where’s your executive ability? Sure, if you’re being raked over the goals in the first quarter after taking over a new job, go ahead and explain how the existing staff may not be the right folks for the goal; but be sure to talk about how you’ll remedy the situation so you can showcase your strategic abilities rather than highlighting your bruised ego.
Never admits mistakes. You’re not fooling anyone when you defend a mistake on your part; no matter how enthusiastically you argue. You’re wrong and everyone knows it. Admit it, own it, and then share your plan not to repeat the blunder. Taking ownership quickly and with a good plan to cure the mishap makes you look smart and professional. Plus, it moves people off the topic of your faults and onto something else.
Gives power and then retracts it. Telling the team that they’re empowered to do their jobs in the way they see fit feels great in the moment. Cheers erupt and everyone stops by to say how grateful they are for the freedom. Then the other shoe drops when they realize you didn’t really mean it. You made it sound like all decisions are up to them when, in fact, only certain aspects of the project or work day activities are in the “anything goes” category because, let’s face it, you have a boss, too. Being clear about your need to troubleshoot or manage quality control is much better than saying “you decide” and then changing the decision.
Some days my inner voice does a great job calming me down and helping me act like an adult by giving me the right words to say. And then there are those days when the voice of reason sounds more like Satan’s cheerleader rooting for me to say anything *but* the right thing. That’s why I think it’s a good idea to have a handful of go-to responses at the ready that I can use in pretty much any situation. I’ve learned the hard way that not having something nice to say doesn’t always keep us from saying nothing at all (or so goes the old adage). With that in mind, here’s a little something to get you started with your own list of better replies.
When you feel like yelling, “Liar!” try responding with:
- I had a different experience.
- What I saw from my perspective may not be what you saw from yours.
- I have a different recollection of that.
- I was told something else.
When you want to shout, “Shut up already!” calmly say:
- You may not realize that you’ve said that already…what can I do to signal I’ve heard you?
- I really need to get a complete thought out; are you okay with hearing me out?
- You may not be aware that every time we talk you bring that up.
- To each his own!
When you’re ready to let loose with a big “You’re crazy!” change it up with:
- I don’t think we share the same feelings on this one.
- I respectfully disagree and that’s okay.
- It sounds like we’re both pretty entrenched in our points of view.
My parents are both from small towns in the Midwest and raised me to exhibit that small town attitude even in the big city. One of the most basic ways they did that was by teaching me to greet anyone who crosses my path—especially if the crossing is a sort of one-on-one situation like passing in a hallway or walking into a store. Turns out, there are a lot of people I encounter who are seriously lacking in that basic social skill and kind of freak out if I say hello or toss a smile their way. What’s up with that? I didn’t ask you for spare change, I don’t need you to sign my petition, and I’m not selling cookies so why not simply return the smile and say hello. I don’t get it.
When you don’t respond to my acknowledgement of your existence it makes me think you’re a jerk. That’s probably not fair of me, but I think it anyway. I try to give you the benefit of the doubt and wonder if you didn’t hear me or if your mind is in another place, but it doesn’t always work. I can’t help but extend your rudeness to the rest of society and wonder what’s wrong with us. How have we become so isolated or so self-important or so paranoid or whatever it is that we can’t even return smile? Then, I let your dismissal rub me like sandpaper and feel myself sliding into a bad mood unless I make a conscious effort not to do so.
This is my plea for you not to ruin my, or anyone else’s, day by ignoring a pleasant greeting. In return, if you’re craning your neck so hard you’re on the verge of whiplash while you attempt to avoid acknowledging my existence, I promise to walk by as if you really are as invisible as you’d like me to believe.
Here we go; round and round. That’s the sound of the all-too-familiar family whirlpool in which one person (usually the woman) asks that a chore get done and the other person (usually a man) seems agreeable but never quite gets it done. She starts tip-toeing around the subject, he avoids it, she gets louder, he acts like she’s a nag, and now they’re on spin cycle with no forward progress in sight.
The last gzillion months have been like that in my house over the washing machine. Apropos, don’t you think? It started with me mentioning that the unit works fine if you have a full load but if there are just a few items, it won’t drain and stops mid-cycle. My man, who can fix anything by the way, took a look at it and I could tell immediately this wasn’t going to end well. He didn’t repair it right away, though he did move a bunch of tools into the laundry room and stack them neatly on the counter—where they’ve stayed for, well, a gzillion months.
I used my mediator magic to keep the conversations positive, to ask for realistic deadlines, to seek out information that was standing in the way (e.g. user manuals, advice from experts, etc.) and still I was wringing out the new red t-shirt and my hand-wash-only unmentionables. Finally, I decided to face reality. Clearly, my Superman is not chomping at the bit to resolve this issue and, clearly, this issue isn’t something I’m willing to end our relationship over, so the appliance repairman is coming this afternoon. It’s time we end the cycle (pun intended).