Surface (and face) Hidden Conflicts

11 Sep 2016
Posted by Shira Ronen

Someone once said… Work would be easy, if it weren’t for the people. The reality is that as humans, we bring our whole selves to work – our talents, our creativity, our insecurities and our worries. Sometimes certain aspects of our personalities lead to passive aggressive behavior at work.

Here is a story that many of you can probably relate to:
Two colleagues had a conflict. He was angry at his boss but she wasn’t aware of it. When she heard he was angry, she has waited for him to approach her about it. He didn’t want to confront his superior but kept talking to others about what was wrong. Two months passed before she eventually brought it up. It got bigger – and festered – for no reason. When finally brought to surface and discussed openly, the conflict was resolved.

When we experience situations like these, we hope things will work out by themselves. In some cases they do: the colleague who seemed to be avoiding us was just too busy and was acting out of character. However, more often than not, issues like these between colleagues don’t go away. Instead, they go unspoken and unresolved and ultimately create a toxic environment.

Facing and surfacing hidden conflicts is about making a decision to open an in-person dialogue about misunderstandings before they damage a working relationship. Most people find this difficult and uncomfortable. However, once you address a conflict you will release the anxiety and resentment that came along with it and you will feel relieved.

As soon as you sense something might be wrong or you notice you are assuming the worst of a colleague, act immediately so you hinder something small from turning into something big (as we saw happen in the example above).

Surface hidden tension by starting a conversation with your colleague. Begin by sharing an observation you have noticed and then ask an open-ended question. Here are some examples of what to say:

1. I am sensing something might be wrong. Can you tell me what is going on?

2. You seem to be avoiding me (or: You seem to be angry at me). What have I done that triggered it?

3. You seemed defensive in our team meeting and I felt like you were attacking me. I apologize if you felt the same. What’s going on?

4. I noticed you hardly spoke at the meeting. Your opinion is very important to me. What do you really think of this project?

Things to remember:

  • Always have these conversations in person. Do not attempt via email, text or instant messaging. Words and tone can be misinterpreted in these mediums and cause more damage.
  • It might take more than one conversation to dissolve the tension. If resentment has built up, there may be more digging and much more listening to do, but eventually you will uncover how the other person is perceiving a situation and will understand how to address their concerns.

Here is another story that took place in the C-suite, but can happen at any level:
On the surface, a very influential head of a division was very nice and seemed cooperative in executive meetings. But when my client’s team reached out to his division regarding a new initiative, there was no collaboration and the division head actually avoided my client, the COO. My client let it go for some time before he decided he had to address the situation. They met for drinks and my client brought up the situation directly by saying, “You seem to be avoiding meetings regarding our initiative. Can you tell me what is going on and what you really think of this initiative?”

My client discovered that the influential head simply did not agree with the whole initiative my client was leading. My client listened attentively and slowly developed the relationship. That discussion led to many more over several months, in which the head was open to hearing more and agreed to a small collaboration, as long as it didn’t harm his division’s bottom line. Over time, they worked together with the CEO and the rest of the executive team to tweak the strategy so benefits of the initiative could be reaped without harming existing sales.

While the disagreement was never fully resolved, the conflict was. Everyone ended up speaking openly about their needs and concerns, which eventually led to a better strategy for the company. If my client hadn’t approached his objector directly and avoided him, my client’s initiative (and possibly the company as a whole) may have failed.

I hope these conflict-resolution tools leave you feeling well-equipped to handle the inevitable strife you will encounter in the workplace. I’d love to hear how these tactics help you face and surface hidden conflicts. Feel free to email me to share your experience.

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