Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Conflict Management

It’s never a good thing when your manager asks to meet with you privately as soon as possible. It’s also never good when your manager walks into a private meeting with a scowl and note pad. It’s never good when they start the conversation with, “there’s no easy way to say this…”


I squirmed around uncomfortably in my chair as I anticipated something awful, something that would ruin my day. It could be anything. Was I getting laid off? Did I make someone upset? Was I failing to meet goals? I waited impatiently as my manager seemed to move and speak in slow motion for some kind of big weight to drop and crush me. As soon as she finished I began to laugh. I laughed a little out of relief, but mostly I laughed at how we arrived here. The story isn’t really all that necessary to tell, but the underlying theme is one that all professionals must wrestle with, conflict management or conflict resolution. Management and resolution are different, because sometimes a conflict cannot be resolved, sometimes you just have to manage it and move forward the best you can. In my professional experience I have seen far too many instances of conflict only being the elephant in the room. Conflict gets swept under the rug as individuals’ true feelings find asylum underneath passive aggressive behavior. Passive aggressive behavior is quite destructive and is an unhealthy response to conflict that at some point will grow to reveal itself. Many old parables speak of agriculture, letting the weeds grow with the crop because as everything grows the weeds will be exposed. The same is true of conflict; it always reveals itself in one form or another.

Is there a way to confront conflict without being “confrontational?” Sure, you don’t want to be that guy who always calls people out and deflates the overall sense of progress in an environment. While that is understandable, confronting something has more to do with the intangible ideology that dictates your actions. These prescriptive thoughts do manipulate movement beyond even the best man-made facades. A fake smile is always fake. Saying, “Have a great day,” when you don’t mean it is never comforting. I had an interesting experience getting my hair cut recently. The girl must have been having a bad day, which is totally acceptable as everyone has a bad day here or there. She was professional, did her job correctly, said all the right things, and even tried to sell me product. The problem was the glaring near explosion she attempted to cover with professional jargon. As the shears ran across the back of my head I hear something that made me want to just jump on out, even half way through a haircut. I’m a guy who really cares about my hair and the precision at which it is cut, so it is unordinary for me to be willing to evacuate a half done job on my dome. “Do you ever get so mad, you just black out?” Thank you ma'am, I have heard enough. Wow, I was a little concerned for my safety. After talking myself into being a decent human and not running at the first sign of instability I decided to stick around, get my hair finished, and have a conversation with this obviously troubled young lady.

“Hello! Welcome to Such and Such!” She didn’t even raise her head to notice someone walked in, she just responded to the bell signifying a new customer. Yes, she said hello, check. “Have a great day!” She rattled this off as she was walking away from her station. She wished someone a nice day, check. I must admit I looked pretty good after braving the storm of the angry lady with sharp scissors. She followed directions and provided what the customer desired, check. She met the steps appropriatley. What was this blacking out in anger thing about though? I was really interested in it. Well, long story short, a girl broke one of her clipper guards. She was so angry she blacked out, which is probably something she could seek counsel on. The poor conflict management allowed this pressure to reside in her that overshadowed all of her professionalism. She did a good job, but was not very nice. The unresolved or mismanaged conflict affected a completely separate circumstance. This internal pressure cooker was showing itself to be a pretty ugly thing. Conflict management or lack thereof, overshadowed her following procedure and even accomplishing a goal.

This leads me back to my conversation with my manager. Apparently someone misunderstood something I said and took it to mean something totally different. So he went to his boss and on up the ladder it escalated. Several business days later, after hours upon hours spent by people with other responsibilities, and all was solved with an email. It is tough in our technologically advanced work place to say something happened based on a misunderstanding because everything is documented. I assured my manager what she was coming to me about was nothing more than a misunderstanding spun out of control, walked back to my desk, and forwarded her two emails. In these two emails it was documented quite clear what was said. Someone read into words, put a tone to it and ran off into the abyss we call corporate passive aggressiveness. There was an obvious conflict, a misunderstanding in words written over an email. This is where the proper understanding and management of conflict would fit in an effort to solve issues and save time. The gentlemen should have just come to me and ask if he misunderstood, maybe even told me my tone came across wrong. Instead of doing that, because confronting someone is so taboo in the work place, he allowed a little seed of misunderstanding to grow into a large issue. This large issue caused countless emails and time invested by managers who have other responsibilities. Instead of confronting the minimal “problem” it grew into something else. We all shared a laugh at the end of the day when all was said and done. But maybe we all laughed out of frustration. Maybe there was a underlying understanding that if the conflict would have been managed correctly in the first place none of this would have happened.

We see this in our work places all the time don’t we? At the core of each blown up problem is really a small misunderstanding or conflict that goes unresolved, grows into something that influences other factors, and becomes something that it is not. How many conflicts do you let grow more than they should. How many times do you pass up a way to professionally confront a conflict or manage it in a way that it doesn’t grow anymore? There is ancient wisdom that prescribes that all anger should be put to rest before sundown. I’ve learned that the longer a conflict is allowed to go unresolved or confronted the worse things get. I think the wisdom behind this old advice is an acknowledgment of this very idea. Letting conflict go unresolved or mismanaged can cause great damage in our personal and professional world. This week or even today, let's focus on embracing conflict management rather than making it a taboo issue that lives in the shadows. Let's change and improve our professional environments by working together to learn to manage conflict better.

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