Conflicted: To Speak or Not to Speak?
“Conflict cannot continue without your participation.”
Google the phrase “conflict in the workplace” and in .43 seconds, 95,900,000 results will appear. No joke. Unless you have a cloning machine that’s shooting out cookie-cutter people to fill every employment position, there are going to be differences in opinion, style and experience that will lead to disagreements among staff, departments and even leadership teams.
To be successful in business, a reasonably thick skin is essential. You can’t go sulk in a corner every time someone disagrees with you or tells you your idea stinks. Unless your acting skills rival Cate Blanchett’s, that fake smile and nonchalant nod of agreement isn’t fooling anyone. Once you’ve toughened up and drank the Kool-Aid, there will still be times when a colleague will overstep their boundaries and mentally send you down a dark road. What you do next determines whether you’ll be a victim or victor. Since not all conflicts carry the same weight, the consequence associated with addressing or not addressing these issues presents different risks/rewards. Here are some tips to recognize and address the pebbles, rocks and boulders that pave the professional road.
You get an email that sounds a bit “snarky.” Your boss thanks the team for the good work but forgets to mention your name. You witness the same person putting their dirty coffee cup in the sink every day, even though the obligatory “your mother doesn’t work here” sign is above the sink. Unless you’re someone that happens to like conflict, most people wouldn’t call out a colleague in these situations because that could create an uncomfortable encounter with a relatively low return on investment. But instead of just moving on immediately, we often stop and pick up that small pebble, roll it around in our hand for a while, and then place it in our backpack of complaints. Over time, a few pebbles can add up to hundreds and pretty soon that backpack is weighing you down so much that it hinders your progress. There’s a great catch-all phrase that you can say to yourself as you’re holding that pebble, before you decide to carry it with you: “This isn’t really about me.” That snarky email? Maybe that person is having a bad day. Or not. Who cares? Move on. Your boss isn’t Rain Man and can’t remember everything all the time. And Coffee Cup Guy? It’s his wife’s problem. Then throw that pebble back in the dirt and keep hiking.
Someone continuously goes out of process and creates bottlenecks or missed deadlines. A colleague seems to roll their eyes every time you contribute an idea in a brainstorm session. A client is coming to town and you notice you’re the only one on the team not invited to the meeting. These are real frustrations that potentially ARE “about you” that can make your job more difficult or cause you to feel undervalued. These must be addressed. The key to resolution is to approach the situation 1) unemotionally and 2) with a belief that the other person doesn’t have a personal vendetta against you. Address the process culprit by asking questions about why they are skipping steps and what you can do to help. There may be legitimate reasons or glitches in the process that need to be fixed to make them work for everyone. Genuinely asking the eye-roller what they think about the quality of your contributions and what you can do to add more value might uncover opportunities for you to improve the way you communicate in group meetings. Maybe you’re so inside your head thinking about what you’re going to say next that you’re missing the fact that others already shared that idea, or perhaps you ramble on too long after you’ve already made your point. Inquiring about why you’ve been left out of a meeting might reveal it was just an oversight, or you might learn that your work on the account isn’t up to par, giving you an opportunity to seek specific clarity on where to focus to improve and grow.
Someone habitually undermines the vision of the company among peers. A team member makes inappropriate racial or sexual comments. A peer is being dishonest or cutting corners that put the company at risk. These are beyond being “about you” and are problems management needs to address. As uncomfortable as it might be to be the snitch, you’ve got to bring these issues to light, and in doing so, to your surprise, a few things might appear to you. Quite frequently, management is already aware of and addressing the issue. If you don’t speak up you could be unnecessarily burdened by stress and worry assuming that nothing is being done to fix the situation. Other times things aren’t always as they seem. Perhaps the dishonest team member was simply misinformed and needs redirection. Or, in reality, you had every reason to be concerned and in bringing the issue to management’s attention, you have empowered them to take action and improve things for you and your peers.
When you find that perfect balance of letting the little things go, while tackling the tough issues, you unburden yourself of unnecessary weight and distractions. This way you can stay focused day-to-day and support management and your peers by stepping up when appropriate to contribute to the forward progress of the company.