Resolving Conflicts in Your Work Relationships

Does this remind you of anyone?

When it comes to confronting difficult people at work, we all feel challenged on a level that’s hard to compare to other situations in the work environment. Unfortunately, speaking to that person directly is usually not the action we take – replaced by either hesitation, coddling or, in extreme cases, complete avoidance of the individual. Why? Because most people are fearful that any action would lead to a worse situation than simply ignoring the person’s abrasive or downright abusive behavior. Yes, there are those who confront others easily without as much as a bat of the eye. But without a good understanding of the situation and the right approach, this can easily lead to irreparable damage to the relationship or even a “friendly” meeting with HR.

People I’ve coached on this topic have most often expressed concern that, if they confront the other person, he/she will either retaliate, make their life at work difficult or at best cause a scene. I’ve also heard statements made of futility, that it’s useless to speak up because ‘There’s no point. The person will never change.’

I’m not going to pretend that this isn’t sometimes the case. There are folks who think they’re perfect, don’t care about how they are coming across, and are not open to change. I have found, however, that most of the people we find challenging either a) know they are imperfect, b) have heard similar feedback, or c) are not aware of how they are coming across. In these cases, I’ve usually found people are willing and open to change (or at least try). If you have a situation like this and feel a relationship with this person is salvageable, here are some steps you can take towards improving the issue and, hopefully, creating a better work environment for both of you.

1. Put your perception in a positive place.

You have to start here. Without believing that the situation can be worked out, your approach will come across as defensive or accusatory or both. Your words need to come from a place where you genuinely want to work things out without a desire to make the other person feel bad or regretful. Once you can confidently and honestly get to this place, go on to step 2.

2. Plan the right time & place…for both of you.

In your office or just when the other person is trying to leave for the day would be the wrong approach. Schedule an offsite lunch or casual dinner (no drinking) with the person, just the two of you. A neutral environment is important for both of you to feel secure and physically “separates” the issue from work. It goes without saying, but don’t plan 30 minutes if that’s what time you need to get your conversation out. Leave time for discussion. The other person may need some validation or additional communication from you and deserves the time as well.

3. Focus communication on the problem, not the person.

You have to own this situation with the other person. You cannot put the blame solely on their head. This is critical for yielding a positive outcome from your discussion. Avoid any name calling, direct accusations or statements that start “You’re being…”.  Instead start with something along the lines of “There are differences between us I’m hoping we can discuss and maybe I can learn what I can do better to create a more positive relationship between us.” It is important that you stress how valuable a good working relationship is for both of you and that this is the goal you hope the two of you can reach together. From there, work towards defining the cause of the problem; maybe you have conflicting goals or objectives, maybe you’re both under a lot of stress or maybe each of your communication styles are simply hard for the other to understand. Defining the problem in a way that both you and the other person agree upon removes blame and allows you to address the real issue, not the other person’s self-esteem.

4. Allow for venting, and then strive for a partnership.

While you may be focused on the future, there may be some need for the other person to express how he/she is feeling about a past situation or conversation. Here is where you have to be the listener and validator. Be empathetic and patient in hearing the other person out, but don’t add to the discussion over details regarding a past event, not one comment. Your goal is to focus on the future and how the two of you can partner to make sure what happens from this moment on is positive. If the other person is asking for all the change to come from you, begin ideas with ‘Can we both…?’ or ‘If I…, will you …?’. Come together on future agreements; don’t split up over past disagreements.

5. Consider following up with a written recap.

If there is a trust issue or a history of problems, you may want to communicate in writing what you’ve discussed. Simply send that person (and only that person…no blind CCs) an email, thanking them for their time, communicating gratitude that you were able to talk it out, expressing hope that the future holds better opportunities to work together and, most importantly, what was agreed upon. For your own protection, it is also important to keep a personal record of past situations, how you reacted at the time, the meeting/discussion you had to resolve the issues, and length of time until any issues happened again. Your records may be important if you need to escalate the situation or HR is asked to get involved.

6. Expect another discussion.

Unless the issue was a blatant misunderstanding or you both have uncommon ability to change your personalities on a dime, there will likely be another moment where an issue that arises. This shouldn’t be looked at as a setback; rather, take this as an opportunity to learn, communicate and recommit to a positive relationship. If there has been progress, it should be celebrated and made the focus of the discussion. If you don’t feel any progress was made, don’t get frustrated. As long as you’re making an honest effort to respect the agreement and create a positive work environment, then start with step 1 again and follow through. Sometimes people need to be shown that a situation isn’t going to be ignored, but it also won’t be handled unprofessionally. You might be tempted to ignore or escalate the situation, especially now that you’ve applied additional effort to resolve the situation, but consider arranging another meeting with the same process to try and get results from your hard work and efforts.

7. Be smart and protect yourself.

Again, there are people who you’re just not going to be able to work things out with, but you have to assume from the beginning that you can if you hope to resolve these issues that may be affecting both your work output and your stress levels. Here are a couple of quick tips to make sure you are positioning yourself for the best possible outcome:

  • If you sense you’ve picked the wrong time, place or you messed up a step, start back at step 1 and be patient with working through this process.
  • If the person can be particularly volatile, then make sure you take the suggestion of a public place that allows for a private conversation (like a restaurant).
  • If you think they are likely to accuse you of a serious violation of company policy, like harassment or physical threats, agree to have a person from HR join you at that meeting
  • If the issue is serious and can’t be resolved, then do your best to protect yourself (and your mental health) and do what you can to make the best of a bad situation. If this means moving on – after management has been made aware of the situation but taken no action – then work towards making that happen.

My hope is that you never have to take these steps and that all your relationships are positive and healthy. But should you find yourself needing the advice above, I believe there is some solace in knowing that almost all of us face with this type of situation at least once in our careers. It’s how we chose to handle it that will determine both the outcome and, maybe more importantly, the way we look back on it when the situation no longer exists.

Lead Like Apple: Prioritize Individual Accountability

To have a fully accountable team, you must break “getting in line” behavior with individual ownership of success. – Brendan Witcher

I’m not sure when or why this happened, but at some point, holding people fully accountable for their work became very non-politically correct. The idea of “getting on the bus” and building a culture of consensus/conformity has become the norm. I’ve been asked to write on this before, but really needed somewhere to start.

Today, while waiting in my office for a meeting to start, I picked up an old Fortune magazine and proceeded to flip through the pages. In it, I came across an article that described how Steve Jobs and Apple applied the concept of a “directly responsible individual,” referred to as the DRI, within the organization. What does that mean?

With every project, there is one specific person, the DRI, who is totally responsible for its success or failure.

Since my meeting was a 2014 budget review for open entry-level positions and internships, my thoughts segued from the article to the pile of resumes on my desk belonging to recent college grads.

It’s no secret that there is an excessive amount of emphasis team building in today’s business schools. My own experience in an MBA program was no different; most of my classes focused on team projects, where everyone received the same grade regardless of effort. I felt at that time, and still believe, that this was the opposite lesson needed for working in a real business environment, where individual efforts tend to define the decisions and outcomes of tasks, jobs or projects. Even in large companies, with 500+ employees, it’s rare that a “team” in some way gets fully rewarded or held accountable for success or failure respectively. In smaller companies, it’s almost never the case.

So, while academia seems to believe everything should be done via teamwork and collaboration (which often leads to compromise in projects), and that the tough decisions should be made via team compromises, I agree with Apple’s approach. Here are the rules I created years ago and use to manage my staff with at every company that’s employed me:

  • Make individuals – not teams – accountable
  • When people succeed, give them full credit and reward them…publicly
  • When people fail, determine what caused the failure and decide on the appropriate action(s): refrain, explain, re-train, or do not retain

If you are trying to implement a significant change, or even build a culture of innovation as part of a strategy, substituting individual ownership with consensus building teams can be disastrous. A culture of consensus (or conformity in a smaller organization) leads to legions of sycophants, merely trying to please the largest paycheck in the room. You also risk suppressing distinct and new opportunities, while crushing any chance of a significant”needle-moving” idea gaining traction.

Remember, if you try to make a unique idea acceptable to everyone, you end up with an average idea. I had a boss years ago who used to often say “Consider this outcome to be the determining factor between you having a job tomorrow or you (and your family) living under a bridge, begging for change.” Harsh, but her point was spot on. If you consider every decision you make to be that critical, the single determining element between success and failure in your career, you’re going to approach your work with a sharper eye, a more focused mind, and an uncompromising determination to make sure that you – not anyone else – deliver successful results.

So, what are the takeaways?

  1. With every significant project, use the DRI concept; name someone who lays down at night worrying that he/she is going to be a failure if this thing doesn’t become a success.
  2. Make it clear to the everyone, at every level, how the job/project is going to be run and, most importantly, who is the DRI. This needs to be said at the top and heard, first hand, by everyone who matters.
  3. Also, make sure it’s clear to everyone that the DRI has full authority and ownership over their job and delivering results, because he/she will be “the throat to choke.”

All that said, there are times when team consensus work is a better choice; in fact, there are situations where it is absolutely necessary. For example, teams must be used when you need to improve a process. Team members should represent the various skills needed to handle certain aspects of a process. Process improvement tools like Japanese Total Quality and Six Sigma brought the team concept to the American workplace; but, unfortunately, many folks still attempt to apply the team notion through every part of their business.

So recognize when to use DRI’s vs. teams, apply DRI use religiously to key areas of the business, follow through on accountability, and who knows…maybe you’ll be running the most valuable company in the world someday too.

Dedicated to Steve…your leadership and inspirational thinking is missed.

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