So, you’ve got unhealthy conflict in the workplace. You’re not alone. You’re not alone in having serious disagreements with colleagues or team members. You’re not alone when you candidly don’t know how or why things got to their current state of affairs. You’re not alone in feeling personally attacked … and perhaps in attacking the other person. You’re not alone in seeing your team’s productivity tank.
Unhealthy conflict happens. You can get caught in it all unawares. Now, it’s time to get out.
The Root Cause of Unhealthy Conflict
One of the commonest root causes of unhealthy conflict is expectations vs. reality. That’s it. Plain and simple.
You may have expected something more esoteric or complicated to lie at the core of most conflicts. But time and time again, year after year in our leadership coaching experience, this is what we see. Unhealthy conflicts happen with predictable regularity when people’s expectations about a situation do not match up with the reality. To compound matters, the broader the gap between expectations and reality, the greater the potential for intense, prolonged, unhealthy conflict.
For example, a director in a pharmaceutical company asks one of his team members to manage a contract manufacturing organization (CMO). Multiple times over the next two months, the director is caught flat-footed in meetings when he finds out that the CMO has issues of which he is unaware. Frustration and recriminations result, with angry words spoken by both director and team member. The director expected clear communication and regular updates as part of the CMO management. Not being advised of problems (whether or not they could be resolved without negative impact) was an unwelcome reality.
Getting Expectations and Reality Back in Sync
Let’s get right to it: what do you do? The temptation for leaders, unsurprisingly, is to blame the other person. After all, you expected something and the other person didn’t deliver. That’s all there is to it, right?
Not so fast.
In fact, that’s the first thing you need to do: SLOW DOWN. Don’t rush to judgment and don’t jump to conclusions. Your emotions are running hot, so you need to step back and cool off. This is a good time to retreat to your office, close the door, turn off the phone, and shut down your email. You need to take a breather.
In this calmer space you have created, ASSUME GOOD INTENT. Recognize that most people do not purposefully slack off or fail to deliver. Generally speaking, people want to succeed … and that goes double for the people who report directly to you! So if there is a gap between what you expected and what you received, it likely was not done out of malice or laziness.
Years ago, I (Rip) became board chair of a networking group for executives. I inherited this position during a period of great contention within the organization. The first thing I did after being elected was call an all-hands meeting. I opened the meeting by addressing the elephant in the room. I said, “People, let’s take a breath and see if we can build productive working relationships with each other. And I want to ask a favor: don’t assume diabolical motives. We’re all trying to do a good job here.” Instantly, you could feel the intensity of emotion in the room come down.
Now, don’t rush off to confront the other person, even if are feeling calmer and more benevolent toward them. ADDRESS YOURSELF FIRST. Let’s be blunt: in most unhealthy conflict situations, it takes two to tango. You are likely just as much part of the problem as the other person. Therefore, you need to figure out how you are contributing to this disconnect between expectation and reality. To do so, ask yourself the following series of questions:
- What were your expectations? Define exactly what you expected, both in terms of what would be done, when it would be done, how it would be done, and what the outcomes would be.
- What is the reality? Again, be specific: what has been done, when was it done, how was it done, and what have been the outcomes.
- Where are there misalignments? Clarify where there are discrepancies between expectations and reality. It may be in every area; it may be in just one or two areas. For instance, you might have be fine with what was done, but be frustrated because of the timetable on which it was done.
- Were your assumptions realistic? We all bring assumptions to the table, and they can be quite unrealistic. For instance, you might assume that someone will tackle a project the exact same way you do. You might assume the person has the same knowledge and experience you have. You might assume that a major problem is just a minor problem. If your assumptions are unrealistic, you can’t blame the other person for failing to deliver on your expectations.
- Did you communicate expectations clearly? Of all the places for problems to occur, this is the biggest culprit. Typically, we are perfectly clear inside our own head about what we want, but we fail to communicate all those details to the other person. If that is the case, then the truth of the matter is that the disconnect between expectations and reality began with you. The remedy? Clearer communication.
- Did you check for understanding? Let’s assume that, to the best of your knowledge, you did communicate with clarity. That is good, but did you check for understanding? The best orator in the world can be misunderstood. You don’t really know for certain that the other person “gets” what you are saying unless you ask and engage them in dialogue about it.
- Is your reaction right-sized or are you overreacting? Perhaps you decide that your expectations were reasonable, you communicated clearly, and you checked for understanding. All right; that’s good. But is your reaction appropriate? Are you perhaps overreacting because of a past personal experience? Is the situation as serious as your emotions are making it out to be? Perhaps; but perhaps not.
It may be helpful at times to get a third-party’s perspective on these questions, since we are not always able to assess our own actions objectively. Regardless, only after you have spent time in self-assessment is it appropriate to take the next step: DISCUSS THE SITUATION WITH THE OTHER PERSON. Ask for their view of what has happened. Seek insights into why they acted in the way they did. You might find that there was an honest misunderstanding. You might discover that there are extenuating circumstances; for instance, a person might be in the middle of a health crisis that is affecting their performance.
After a thorough discussion, you will both be in a better place to decide how to proceed. You may need to give redirecting feedback; you may not. It is not uncommon for thoughtful conversation to move naturally into collaborative issue resolution – and going from conflict to collaboration is a definite “win” for all concerned. The bottom line is that by slowing down, assuming good intent, engaging in self-assessment, and discussing the situation calmly with the other person, you can undo unhealthy conflict and get back on track!