Conflict scares many of us. Heck, it scares most of us. We may not admit it, but we definitely go out of our way to NOT have conflict. We have explanations – it won’t do any good, it will just make things worse, why stir the pot, I’m sure it will all work out in time – but the bottom line is that conflict makes us uncomfortable, so we avoid it.
What we need in the face of the issues that bring up conflict is a sense of agency. I’m becoming addicted to the word agency – the sense that we have leverage with an issue, that we CAN take it on and deal with it, sooner or later, effectively. Anxiety, I contend, is really a lack of a sense of agency with an issue, for whatever reason.
Well, not ANY reason. It’s usually a “what if?” fear about the future. Most of us avoid conflict because we’re not confident about the outcome – i.e., we’re unsure of our agency in that situation. What if this discussion goes badly? What if they get angry at me? What if we start yelling at each other? What if I tell him or her what I really think of them? What if people think I’m a troublemaker? I’m sure you can think of more…
We’ve had our sense of agency – our “I can” thinking – corroded over time. So the work becomes giving ourselves back (or maybe gain for the first time) a sense of agency with potential or real conflict. How do we stay cool in the face of conflict while managing it well? Here are two examples to consider -
The Manager Who Avoids a Difficult Conversation With an Employee About Performance
It all begins with some “what if?” thinking. What if this employee takes my feedback personally/gets offended by my critique? What if they start causing trouble in my team after my feedback? What if they become an enemy?
Notice how we’re assuming the worst-case scenarios before we even wade into the discussion. Also notice how many, many managers avoid performance reviews like the PLAGUE precisely because they are asking “what if?” questions just like this.
Here’s a question: how would YOU, as an employee, like to have someone come at you with a performance review? What would make it even marginally more safe, less scary for you? Well, for one thing, you’d like to believe that it wasn’t about you and your personal failings, but instead about where you could constructively, practically improve your work. Which would mean focusing on the issue instead of failures or recrimination –
You’d want your boss to listen to you, too, yes? You’d want an opportunity to explain why you think you didn’t perform as well as you wanted to or could have, and have the sense you were heard and respected? In fact, you’d want to be treated as a peer, and that would go a long way to making this performance review a discussion rather than a fight.
In other words, you’d like to have some sense of agency in how this interaction went, and what you could do in it. That would really change how you felt and thought about this situation… and of course this works from the manager side, as well.
This doesn’t mean that you don’t get to the part of the discussion where you (as a manager) say the things that need to be said about performance improvement. But it does mean that you do it in the way or ways that will both get the truth said AND create the best chance of being heard.
So maybe this becomes about how you can foster a sense of agency from BOTH sides of the performance review conversation, and as a result diminish the role of anxiety in the interaction.
Here’s a crazy notion: why not ask the employee directly how they want to hear performance reviews? Is it so out of bounds to consider how, as a manager, you could improve communication about performance reviews by starting with “hey, how does this work best for you?” Agency. Reducing anxiety/stress/worry/fear.
The Co-worker Who Avoids Confronting Irritating Behavior from a Colleague
Cue “what if?” thinking here: We have all experienced them – those tedious, difficult, or just annoying co-workers who drives us crazy with this or that behavior. We definitely don’t want to confront them! What if they say screw you, I can do what I want? What if working with them becomes awkward? (Like it isn’t already?) What if they deny it and pretend they are not doing it, or say I’m making a big deal out of nothing?
We SO much want to get along with our co-workers! Of course we do. At the same time our workplaces are filled with people who are unable to communicate with their peers, and instead tolerate a range of frustrating, annoying and even counter-productive behaviors that sap energy, time and attention.
So what can we do to give ourselves agency with these frustrating people? Well, again, how would we want to be approached? How could someone else defuse defensiveness and open up a dialogue with us? (See my last post HERE about dealing effectively with defensiveness.) We know how much real listening can do to make someone else feel respected and safe. How much have we sat and really listened to our colleague? How much have they really listened to us?
We can talk about ourselves (use I language) and our experience with this issue. We can see the discussion as a negotiation. We can think of this issue in terms of a larger relationship with this person. I don’t mean we have to marry them or become best friends with them. But we can focus FIRST on improving communication with that person, THEN address the annoying issue.
In other words, we can develop a better sense of agency with that person, which gives us more agency with the annoyance…
I Haven’t Exhausted the Possibilities, of Course
And I don’t have to, because the whole mission is simply this: how do I get a sense of agency in this situation, with this person or group, around this issue or problem? We need to start reframing conflict as a problem, not a crisis, and then tackle it AS a problem. So many potential conflict situations are completely manageable with a problem mindset.
My question for this blog post is this: what’s one conflict situation in your world that you really could, in fact, do something about, if you framed it as a problem that you COULD solve, with time and thought and effort?