In a perfect world, conflicts at work would improve productivity and even relationships. However, in the real world, conflicts can result in damaged relationships and a lack of trust. A recent study conducted by the Mountain States Employers Council (www.msec.org) asked employees to rate the most important factor to their retention. Nonprofit employees rated “Trust in their direct supervisor” as most important to their decision to stay with an employer. A trusting relationship is built on communication and mutual respect. So, how do we maintain trusting relationships with those who supervise us during times of disagreement, especially when communication gets hard and respect is out the door?
It is Tuesday morning at a local nonprofit. Monday was a stressful day for all staff. A few employees were out sick, clients seemed on edge and, as always, everyone was trying to do more with fewer dollars. Sally, the executive director, comes in a little late after getting delayed because of a bad traffic accident. She admits to herself that her tardiness is going to make the rest of the day frenetic as she has back-to-back meetings and needs to print some notes before the first meeting. Following right behind Sally is Patty, the project coordinator. She was a half mile behind Sally and is even later because of the same accident. Patty is stressed because her two year old cried all the way to day care. Patty hates being late for anything. The two bump into each other at the copy machine. Without much acknowledgement, Sally grumps out a “Hello” and says to Patty, “We’ll talk later,” then leaves the room.
Patty goes to her desk, distressed. She is surprised at Sally’s abruptness. Patty frets that maybe Sally is mad at her for being late. Patty sits at her desk, unable to concentrate on the tasks she wants to accomplish. After 30 minutes or so, Patty realizes she needs to resolve this miscommunication with Sally. She loves her job and thinks Sally is a pretty good boss. Yet, Patty worries that if she confronts Sally, their good relationship will change. How can Patty approach Sally in the spirit of resolving the conflict and maintaining the relationship?
Conflict resolution styles
The first thing Patty can do is identify the “what” of the conflict rather than the “who.” For Patty, this means finding out what is going on. Why did the exchange in the copy room feel so uncomfortable? What is Patty dreading in the approach with Sally?
As Patty sorts out the situation, she can decide what style of conflict resolution to use. Conflict resolution styles are based on two skills: listening and asserting. Listening skills include asking questions, withholding judgments and taking in information without a lot of commentary. Asserting skills include stating our desires and opinions, as well as persisting in getting an outcome. Conflict resolution styles are a combination of listening and asserting, and which one to use depends on what will help best resolve the situation.
Patty can choose to avoid the situation. If she chooses this style of conflict resolution, she is deciding to do no listening or asserting. Patty may decide that Sally almost never acts the way she did in the copy room and, therefore, choose to not say anything. When we choose the style of avoiding, we are not addressing the conflict and, when left unaddressed, the conflict doesn’t get resolved. We may believe we want to pick our battles, especially with our bosses. That can be a good conflict resolution strategy. Just make sure issues don’t fester or get ignored for so long that the problem becomes much worse to resolve.
Patty may decide to accommodate Sally. With this style, she would do a lot of listening and not much asserting. Patty may ask Sally to meet with her and open the conversation with something like, “I know this morning was rushed; I wanted to make sure that you and I were okay.” At that point, Patty would listen, occasionally asking Sally questions. She might find out that Sally didn’t even remember the exchange, or she might learn that Sally is overwhelmed by all that is going on and was just frustrated that she was late arriving for work. With our bosses, accommodating can be practical. We learn more about what is driving them to succeed and what worries them. However, overusing accommodating may give our leaders the impression that we are not very strong.
Patty could also choose to force the conflict. In this case, Patty would tell Sally that she was distressed by their interaction in the copy room and that she wished Sally wouldn’t treat her like that. Patty wouldn’t listen much, and she would probably have a specific request to be satisfied. This is a very intense style and can only be used with our bosses sparingly. There are times when ethics, work-life balance or an emergency might require us to state and stand by our opinion. When this style is overused in the workplace with our colleagues and particularly our managers, we get labeled as difficult and headstrong.
Finally, Patty might decide she wants to partner with Sally. Using this style, Patty will both assert her needs, as well as really listen to Sally’s view. Patty might decide to start a conversation with Sally by stating what she would like to be different. Patty then might ask some questions about what it would take to get her outcome. The partnering style works well when an employee and manager have a stable relationship. This style may require negotiation and compromise and, as such, requires time and commitment to the outcome.
Managing conflict with our managers is tricky. The manager/employee relationship is an important relationship based on respect and power differences. However, with a reasonable boss and a careful choice of conflict resolutions styles, we can enhance trust and expand our relationships with our managers.
By Deborah Dale Brackney, vice president of the Mountain States Employers Council (MSEC), Inc., a resource for employers in employment law, human resources consulting, training and surveys (www.msec.org).