Conflicts of Interest
Everything you ever wanted to know about conflicts at home, at work, or in the neighborhood.
When people don’t know what’s happening they often get a movie going in their head that helps them explain the situation. The film versions they conjure up are rarely romantic comedies; rather, most resemble horror movies with terrible endings. A lack of honesty or openness at work can put everyone’s mental movie-making skills to the test.
I love a dramatic film as much as the next guy but when it comes to resolving conflict, I know I need to set my desire for a good story aside and focus on what’s real. With that said, we’ve probably all had coworkers who like to make even the most mundane topics sound intriguing and captivating. As long as you know that about them, don’t get too worked up when they want to send out those “I know something you don’t know” messages. If what you’re experiencing goes beyond that, address your concerns privately and give the person an opportunity to let you know if they’re in a position to share information. Accept that sometimes people are sworn to secrecy for a certain amount of time or that they may be in the “thinking” stages and need to explore a number of options before making an announcement.
Withholding information is one thing; one’s words not matching one’s actions is another. We’ve all had occasion to feel blindsided, disrespected, or embarrassed because we took someone at their word and then something else actually happened. When you find that someone has been less than honest give them a (private) opportunity to explain what happened. Our sense that someone didn’t tell the truth isn’t always accurate, so certainly give people the benefit of the doubt. If it turns out that your suspicions are true, let the person know that you expect more and that you’re willing to work on trusting them again. Move forward with an agreement that it won’t happen again.
We’re all human and when you find yourself in a circumstance in which you’ve been less than honest or were unnecessarily closed off about particular information, make whatever apologies you need to make, come clean, and be better than that from here on out. Keep in mind that you’re the star of your coworker’s mental movie, so work on creating a better ending.
Impracticable approaches to projects and tasks have certainly been the topic of many a gripe session between employees. The conversation often begins with one of them busting out with, “He’s never even done this job before,” and the other person responding with, “Really! What does he know?!” Having unrealistic expectations with your staff, boss, or coworkers can easily place you in the center of such a conflict.
If you’re experiencing push-back about your expectations, try a new approach. Learn more about what’s involved in a process so you can break down the steps and then discuss the specific points that are causing the disagreements rather than getting into a back-and-forth about the entire project. If you’re not comfortable starting from ground zero, let others tell you what is possible and negotiate from there.
If you feel a coworker or boss is asking you to do too much with too little, spend time planning (and practicing) how you’ll communicate your concerns without sounding like you’re whining or trying to get out of doing work. Providing solutions that include prioritizing are always a good thing. If you’re suggesting something should go to the compost pile, talk about both the downside and the upside for letting it go so you present yourself as seeing the big picture—not just advocating for your side. And, of course, if there’s a better, smarter way to accomplish a task, be sure to share your ideas as neutral as possible.
There’s an old saying in business that says you can have things fast, good, and affordable. Problem is, the best you can usually do is two out of three so decide which two are most important to you and go forward from there. Fast and affordable may not be good; and fast and good will probably cost you more than you’d like to pay. Expecting all three each and every time may be, well, unrealistic.
Change almost always brings fear. When a shift from the normal is announced, many employees can become hyper anxious as they wonder what creepy crawly things await them. Others rage. And, then there are those who hide from any change by sticking their head so deep in the sand they begin to suffocate. Most employees do a little of each of these actions that are examples of the tenth of a dozen behaviors that cause conflict in the workplace. Namely, being uncomfortable with change.
Rather than raging, hiding, or making yourself sick with anxiety, try processing your fear. Get a piece of paper and write down everything that will be different. Include things you’ll miss like people, tasks, or processes as well as aspects of the change that could potentially benefit you like networking with new people and tackling new tasks. Begin to focus on the positive and let go of the past by asking questions with the understanding that not all the answers will be readily available.
If processing on your own doesn’t ease the fear, talk things out privately with a trusted confidante. Be sure to avoid public, negative discussions and don’t participate in gossip. Allow yourself a finite period of time in which to wallow in your anxiety (like the weekend) and then set an example by speaking positively about the change. Talk about the silver lining for both you and your coworkers by giving examples of things you can now do that you couldn’t before. If you can’t find the silver lining, start to craft solutions for potential problems.
If someone you know is struggling with change, ask them to find their own opportunities in the new normal. Will they be able to spend more time with family or participate in their favorite outside activities? Will the increased job responsibilities enhance their resume and better prepare them for a promotion? Help them process their emotions by talking privately and letting them share what’s most upsetting about what’s happening. Sometimes it’s not the actual change that’s distressing but the way in which it was communicated that causes a poor reaction.
Whatever the reason for being uncomfortable, finding the positive in the new normal as quickly as possible helps. Sometimes the benefit is simply having a job in a bad economy. There may be very little you can impact with the uncertainty, but your attitude and approach to the news is always 100% under your control.
Do you work with someone whose shortcomings tug at your heart strings? Taking on the role of caregiver every now and then isn’t a bad thing; like helping a new employee find his way or mentoring someone who has an interest in learning from you. Nor is it wrong to help someone become more efficient or stretch their skills; no matter your position in the org chart.
#9 in our list of a Dozen Dirty Behaviors That Cause Conflict at Work is what happens when an employee relies too much on that helping hand and you’ve moved from aiding to rescuing. Other employees can get upset especially when the rescuing is at their expense for an extended period of time or happens a little too often.
To be clear, covering up for someone or asking someone to cover up for you is not the same as covering (or rescuing). Covering is a short term action like answering the phones when a coworker has an appointment outside the office or responding to customer emails while Cindy is on vacation. Covering up is more than that; like keeping someone in a position that’s beyond his capabilities even with additional training and coaching. That sort of rescuing isn’t doing him or his co-workers any favors.
If you’re covering up for a coworker, consider going to him and letting him know you think it’s time for him either to ask for whatever it is he needs to do his job properly—or you will. Talk to him about the benefit of having this out in the open like experiencing less stress or perhaps finding a job that better fits his skill set. You can cut the cord with compassion and dignity if you put the focus on the benefit for him rather than talking about the fact that you can’t take it any longer.
If you’re the one others are rescuing, consider stepping up to acknowledge what’s happening and presenting a proposal to change things. Admitting your shortcomings and asking management to work with you on a plan to improve may actually result in you getting better at your job than you thought possible.
I say, “Blah, blah, blah”, you say, “Blah, blah, blah”, nothing connects and then we’re both frustrated. #8 in our list of a dozen dirty behaviors that cause conflict at work is talking more than you listen.
Successful salespeople often close deals by first listening to their customer’s needs and then finding a way to respond with whatever it is they’re selling. If you follow their lead by developing the habit of starting most conversations with an open-ended question you’re sure to learn what your coworkers are focused on, what’s important to them, or where you might add value.
Trying to get a word in edgewise, though, with a talker can be challenging. When you have something to say but can’t find a place to jump in with your own thoughts, ask for the opportunity to do so. “When you’re ready, I have some ideas I’d like to share” is a great way to say, “Please be quiet long enough for me to say something” without offending the other person. Practice what you’ll say before you bring up ideas and then ask for uninterrupted time to deliver a succinct message. Another strategy is to let the other person talk as much as he wants and at some point let him know that you have something to say when he’s finished. While he’s talking make sure you’re following good listening techniques so he knows you hear and understand his point of view. Otherwise he may start repeating himself and you’re back to square one waiting for your turn to talk. Avoid “fake listening” which is when you’ve pointed your face in the right direction but what’s coming in sounds more like Charlie Brown’s teacher’s “Wa, Wa, Wa” than it does something you could repeat for a pop quiz. Maintain attentive eye contact—staring blankly in the other person’s direction is not attentive eye contact.
Listening more than you’re talking also includes showing you’re engaged by exhibiting open and receptive body language. Nodding and sitting up will demonstrate your interest. Take some notes for the purpose of reflecting back the information you’ve heard. Bring your own notes so when it’s your turn to talk you know what you’d like to say rather than trying to keep on ongoing list in your head while the other person is talking; your notes will also help you avoid interrupting.
In any conversation, asking questions to clarify or gain better understanding is always a good thing. A good friend likes to remind me that we have two ears and one mouth in the right proportion; which is our clue to listen twice as much as we talk.
Rushing in with a super-hero cape and special powers to fix whatever is ailing a project could result in the wrong problem being fixed while the real issue is tied to the railroad tracks with a steam engine barreling in its direction.
Welcome to #7 in the list of the Dirty Dozen Behaviors that Cause Problems at Work.
Today’s employers want staff who are problem-solvers. Knowing that, you may have a tendency to want to jump in and fix something just so you can tell him about all the troubles you’ve averted. If you rush in too quickly, though, you could make matters worse.
Taking a few minutes to ask some clarifying questions may be all it takes to understand the scope and depth of a problem. The way in which you ask those questions matters in terms of enflaming or calming those around you. Try to refrain from using any words, body language, or tone that can come across as accusatory or critical while you’re exploring all aspects of the event. You’ll probably be tempted to ask “why” a lot so practice saying, “So, you did this because….” and then let the person finish the sentence. I understand it’s really a “why” question in disguise but it’s an easier one to respond to.
Once you’ve explored the situation start eliciting ideas for a solution. Get more than your initial idea on the table; yours may still be the best answer but having a number of possible resolutions allows for a strategic response versus something that may be seen as knee-jerk if it doesn’t work out.
To help others avoid rushing in to fix things when you bring a problem, be prepared with three solutions so the other person knows that you understand the scope and depth of the issue and that you’ve given serious thought about to how to fix it. Only one idea makes you sound positional, two can come across as “either/or”, but three opens the door for discussion and, like I said, demonstrates that you understand what’s happening.
When should you apply these strategies? Of course, if there’s a fire blazing in the hallway, by all means get the extinguisher and put it out. However, learning that the date was left off the VIP invitation to the big seminar lends itself to at least a short discussion.
We’re halfway through our list of a Dozen Dirty Behaviors that cause problems at work with #6; giving vauge instructions.
What do you think your boss means when she gives you an assignment and then adds, “When you get to it” as part of the instructions? Does she mean to provide the final product by 3:30? Maybe she wants it by Wednesday at noon? Or, do you interpret her vagueness to mean never because you have other work to do? Conversely, if she says, “Make this is a priority” do you drop everything and work on the new task until it’s finished–even if you miss other deadlines?
Ambiguity about what’s needed, by when, and by whom is a common frustration in the workplace (it’s also a frustration at home but that’s another subject!). If you work with someone who too often uses hazy, vague language or skims over the details, don’t be afraid to ask questions to bring things out of the fog. Sometimes it’s helpful to put the questions in the form of a statement like, “This is a priority, so I’m going to drop the other projects until Thursday noon when this is due.” When you do that you not only create clarity around the instruction but you also demonstrate for the other person how to give clear, precise instructions that leave little for misinterpretation.
Interpreting what someone wants can be as confusing as trying to interpret why they don’t just spell it out from the start. Sometimes people leave out details because they’re busy or they think you already know the answer—and in today’s workplace that’s understandable. Sometimes we leave out details because we’re concerned others will be upset or react poorly. Whatever the reason, if you experience a coworker who is hesitant to give you all the information you need, you may have to ask pointed questions to help them tighten up their request. Ask questions like, “Do you need this by 5:00? By tomorrow morning at 7:00? What’s your preference?” and so on until you’ve narrowed the field of potential options and have an agreement. It may take a little practice and a few extra minutes getting all the details but it certainly beats an awkward situation in which one of you is trying to read between the lines and the other is hoping everything will just work out.
When it comes to how you deliver expectations practice being clear each and every time. Say things like, “I would like you to complete an outline for the report and email it to me by 6:00 p.m. today. I’ll read it over tonight and let you know what I think right after my morning meeting with Joe tomorrow.” A statement like that leaves very little room for misunderstanding. It also gives the other person the opportunity to negotiate something else so he doesn’t let you down when he doesn’t provide exactly what you needed.
Don’t you find it frustrating when you have an idea that you’re dying to share and after getting out only a few words someone cuts you off or moves on to the next person? Yeah, me too; and that’s just one example of dismissive behavior in the workplace. Moving things along in a business setting is necessary at times but the way in which it’s done can make the person doing it look foolish as much as it makes the recipient of the action feel small.
If you’re the one feeling dismissed, be open to the reality that the way others react to your ideas may have something to do with your delivery. Consider how you might come across more succinctly (think bullet points!) and get to the benefit of your idea quickly. Actually, think about starting with it. Saying something like, “We could raise our customer service rating by 10% if we…” is sure to grab attention faster than saving it for a big finish.
What if you’re the one who’s been accused of being dismissive or flip? Try giving yourself an internal time limit before you speak—especially if the speaker wants to share a feeling or emotion about something. Better yet, ask at least one question about whatever it is he’s saying before you consider whether his contribution is worth exploring or his concerns are valid. “Tell me what makes you think that” or “What would be the benefit for trying that” are perfect (and quick) ways to help the speaker get to the point faster and avoid losing your attention.
Continuing the Dirty Dozen list of 12 behaviors that cause conflict at work and then are attributed to the catchall phrase, “personality clashes”, let’s yell #4 from the rooftops!
Some employees like to say, “Unless you’re bleeding, choking, or there’s a fire, I don’t need to know about it.” On the other end of the spectrum there are those want to take the smallest glitch and make it a Federal case—complete with imaginary TV coverage and expert commentary.
Big reactions with big voices and big gesticulations often stem from a lack of information and a whole lot of assuming. They also seem to happen when people are especially tired, stressed, or under a lot of pressure. And, what workplace doesn’t experience stress or pressure? It’s expected that you and your peers will snap at each other once in a while. Feeling slighted by a comment or a being worried about a missed deadline isn’t that unusual. Throwing a fit and getting into a spitting match in the middle of the hallway, though, is over-reacting.
There are two important things to remember about over-reacting. First, the more emotional the response, the more you know that the real issue is probably not the one being discussed. Secondly, the more emotional someone is the less they’re going to be able to reason with you. Instead of responding with your own snarky retort take a breath and let the person vent for a minute. Give them some space and come back to the topic when things aren’t so raw. Consider a few open-ended questions or calming comments that will help you uncover what the reaction is really about. For example, say something like, “I can see this is really upsetting. What’s most bothersome about it for you? Help me understand this reaction.” If they’re not able to answer in a way that makes sense to you, either keep asking or suggest you talk another time when you’re both better prepared.
If you’re the one who’s about to blow up or cry or stomp out, ask for some time so you can decipher what it is about the issue that is causing you to want to react poorly. Is it really that the report came in 15 minutes late or that your coworker makes you feel unimportant all too often? You may have to find some quiet time to work through your emotions or you may find it helpful to ask someone to listen while you rant about the situation until you’ve reached a conclusion regarding the real issue. Either way, stepping back from an over-reaction (yours or theirs) gives you both the opportunity to return with clearer heads so you have a better chance of putting out the right fire.
Continuing the Dirty Dozen list of 12 behaviors that cause conflict at work and then are attributed to the catchall phrase, “personality clashes”, I’m adding:
#3 Pitting People Against Each Other
Building a cohesive work group is nearly impossible when behaviors that divide and conquer take over. If your supervisor has a tendency to pit people against each other in what she thinks is merely a friendly competition for more sales or better customer service, she may not know that she’s tearing her team apart. Dividing coworkers can cause deep divides that are hard to bridge.
Bringing up sensitive issues in a team meeting (like what’s-his-name’s inability to meet deadlines), or ignoring tension, playing favorites, and using sarcasm to make a point are all ways we can stir up issues at work. Those specific behaviors do nothing for creating a productive workplace and when the victims of such actions clue into what’s happening they can sometimes turn on the culprit—creating a scene that doesn’t often end well.
No one likes to feel small in front of their peers; even if you think it’s the push they need to improve. If you’re looking for ways to motivate an individual, start by seeing him as an individual. Private discussions about shortcomings or areas for improvement will help him hear your message while you tailor your comments to his specific situation. Let’s be honest; public displays that result in winners and losers are only fun for the winners!
And, then there’s gossip. It’s the ultimate way to divide people and one of the most common behaviors that even the best of us have participated in. If you do it, it’s time to stop it. If a coworker comes with a juicy bit of information or you notice he’s good at throwing barbs at others when he has an audience, don’t participate. Instead, say something like, “I’m not sure how necessary that was,” or “I think I’ll pass on this conversation.” A good response that works almost every time is, “Oh”; followed by a prolonged period of silence. That sends a clear message that you have no intention of participating in destructive behaviors that divide, rather than unite, the working relationships around you.
Why concern yourself with changing these behaviors? Consider that friends and allies come from all corners of the workplace. The individuals affected today may be the very folks sitting on the hiring panel for your next position or, worse yet, the seemingly innocuous coworker who stealthily thwarts your every move as a way to repay you for the hurt you’ve caused. Plus, there’s power in numbers and a united team is far more powerful than a divided team.