Dealing with Conflict Under Stress — Keep It Simple

Much of my work over the years has been in helping address workplace conflicts. When we are all now trying to do our part to minimize the impacts of COVID-19 on our society, we also must adjust to new ways of working under stress. Different businesses are experiencing different stress factors: Some are working from home, balancing work and family responsibilities in a new light. Others are in warehouses, hospitals, grocery stores, and factories, working side-by-side with others to deliver essential goods and services while knowing their own risks are greater because they do so. And then there are many who are laid off, or whose work has been otherwise cancelled, so even their definitions of “workplace” are in flux.

The reality for many of us these days is that we are even more highly stressed than usual, fearful of the health and financial effects of this pandemic. And if you are working in certain environments, you are also increasingly exhausted. These factors combine to test our abilities to deal effectively with one another, so it only makes sense that conflicts will arise. Here are some basic steps you can take to address them, whether over the phone or across a “physically appropriate” distance: 

  1. Prepare Yourself to Engage in the Conversation: Paradoxically, this may be an opportunity offered by lack of proximity. 
    • Take a deep breath and get centered before you attempt to speak with the other person. Prepare yourself to listen fully
    • Notice 1 or 2 “most important things” you want the other person to understand. It won’t help to overwhelm them, and we may not have energy for long discussions. 
    • You might also remind yourself what might happen if an agreement isn’t negotiated. Sometimes we stay ‘at the table’ to talk because the alternatives don’t work well.
  1. Seek to Fully Understand and to be Understood: This is all about having a conversation, where we really try to understand one another’s concerns, perspectives, and experiences with the issues at hand.
    • Patiently demonstrate to the other person that you are ready to listen, and ask for that same commitment in return (establishing “Ground rules” can be helpful, as well, such as “one person will speak at a time, without interruption”). 
    • Take time to Clarify, Restate, and Summarize what you each hear from one another – it takes a little longer at first, but establishes a good rhythm for listening and talking. If you take the lead, the other person will likely follow – minimally, you may ask for it in return.
  1. Identify the Core Issues – What is Really Needed?: A key to negotiating effective agreements is to focus on the key underlying needs, interests and concerns of those involved.
    • What did the previous discussion reveal? What are a couple of core issues that should be addressed today?
    • If all involved can agree on mutual concerns, as well as something that may also matter to one person more than the other, an Agenda can be established that reflects what is really needed. 
  1. Patiently Discuss Each Issue, Generating Options and Possible Solutions: Use your skills here to “work the problem.” 
    • Start with an issue you both agree is important. If discussing a few issues, start with one more likely to be addressed quickly.
    • Take turns offering possible solutions without judgment, and then review the list and see what might work. Taking each issue in turn, build an agreement. 
    • If you get stuck, either return to Step 3 or move on for now.
  1. Review the Agreement, Agree to “Check in” Again: Review the Agreement that is emerging, and clarify ‘action steps’ now needed to implement it. 
    • Be clear regarding who is responsible for various actions, including any communication with others not part of this conversation. 
    • Clarify expectations regarding the time required to take these steps, as well. Be realistic, given the way we are now living and working.
    • Finally, identify a time to “check in” together to see how things are going. 

Sorry I don’t have a cool acronym to remember, but I think these steps are pretty clear. With some practice, you can follow them and coach others on your staff to do the same. If you are facilitating a conversation involving two staff members or an upset team, just follow these same steps with them. 

We can do this! We don’t need to put off dealing with those workplace and community conflicts that were boiling over before we shifted into life during COVID-19, but we can simplify our approaches given social distancing and virtual communication realities. We may not be able to get all of the visual and physical cues that are present in a face-to-face conversation where we are at the same table together, but by being really intentional about our approaches, we can have some meaningful and worthwhile conversations that make this new workplace reality a bit more tolerable. 

How is work going for you in these new circumstances? What other suggestions do you have that work well for such conversations over the phone or over video conference? How are conversations at work happening among co-workers who are maintaining ‘social distance’ to get the work done safely… and what is happening when people feel that just isn’t possible? 

Stay well,

Harry

“The world’s turned upside down.” These famous words, invoked in a 17th century English ballad and most recently in the musical, Hamilton, describe our current time quite well. This was largely true it seemed, just a few months ago as the world political order was disintegrating. But that was before COVID-19 truly turned the world upside down, taking so much of what we have regarded to be normal and predictable with it. 

Whew. Just two weeks ago, I was still believing that I could plan visits with friends, teach classes in person and meet over coffee, go to a play, or take planned trips in late March, mid-April, and July. I’m still holding out naive hope for July, but I’m a naturally optimistic person. 

Just a week ago, I still thought I could take a plane from Ottawa, Canada to Madison, Wisconsin, then return after a weekend with friends. Now, the border is closed, airports are largely devoted to processing thousands attempting to return home (only to self-quarantine), and my city of a million people is largely shut down. When I hear that schools and businesses are closed for a couple of weeks, I realize they are denying the reality that we have entered a much longer period of enforced separation. 

Yet, we keep on with our work. In this new reality, many of us are able to work virtually, while many others are providing health care, protective services, groceries, transportation, and other work that is essential to navigating the crisis. We all do what we are trained to do, and we also must now learn how to do it differently. Ironically, those organizations (for example) that made it difficult to telecommute or have a flexible schedule now demand an entirely new way of working. Yet, we are still creatures of habit, clinging to old ways of contacting customers, finding information, responding to hierarchies of permission. 

As we have discussed in What Matters at Work, there are three sets of needs to be addressed in our negotiating through conflicts and other meaningful issues: Substantive needs relate to the ‘stuff’ we are doing, the tasks to be accomplished, the orders to be fulfilled. Process needs relate to how we address those tasks so people feel they are informed, included, and can readily see how decisions are made. Relational needs relate to how we feel respected, how we sustain trust, how we enhance our relationships at times of vulnerability and fear. All three sets of needs are always present, though they are perceived and framed differently by each of us. Due to our race, religion, ethnicity, gender, and our life experiences, we have different sets of priorities and interests in What Matters regarding these needs. 

I appreciate many colleagues and fellow facilitators who are offering ‘tips for virtual meetings’ and ‘strategies for working at home’ at this time. Such resources are certainly beneficial for getting tasks done in our new workplaces, and the variants on Zoom, WebEx, and Hangouts that are becoming primary meeting platforms have already been well-tested. But the Substantive aspects feel secondary to me as I look at where we need guidance, and I’m much more focused on the Relational and Process aspects as I look at What Matters in such times. 

Where should we be focused right now? Here are a few initial ideas:

  1. Connect with One Another. It Matters A Great Deal. Connecting with one another is primary at this time, and since we cannot do so face-to-face (at least closer than 2 meters!), we must find other ways to do so that reinforce the importance of connections and which keep our best practices top of mind. There is a genuine risk of isolation during this period, as well as the paradoxical challenge of being ‘on top of one another’ at home… These experiences need valid, trust-based spaces to be expressed. Managers and project leaders should facilitate ways staff can foster such workplace connections, allowing those virtual meetings to include ‘check in’ periods that let participants unburden, offer ‘creative ideas for getting through this,’ etc. 
  1. Let’s focus on the experience of personal transition in the face of this huge external professional change. COVID-19 offers a global case study in systems disruption and massive change. Many of our agencies and companies have had disaster recovery plans in place for responding to serious events like tornadoes, floods, snow storms, etc. We have crisis management teams to deal with critical events, including ‘active shooters’ in a workplace or chemical spills that require quick evacuations. Granted, this pandemic has transcended most planning and preparation:  Yet we should still turn to those structures we have created, those processes for managing the crisis that we have practiced, those relationships that have been fostered to consult for their caring wisdom. If we follow those protocols, many of the best strategies emerge.

But the personal transition each of us is experiencing is not addressed by such plans. As I’ve noted in my work, William Bridges offers some excellent ideas that are instructive here: Core to his approach is recognizing that we go through Endings and Beginnings,  and the heart of the experience is the Neutral Zone of uncertainty, stress, and powerlessness. As we notice Endings, we need to acknowledge them, perhaps even celebrating what they provided that can no longer happen. For example, I was speaking recently with a client who is missing the ease with which he could go to the next cubicle and ask for help or advice… it just isn’t the same doing so through an email or waiting for the virtual meeting next week! Acknowledge this: He should tell his co-workers (as they are all now working apart) that he misses the banter. That opens up the chance for them to make similar comments. Over time, we may miss ‘the good old days,’ and go through feelings of anger, upset, denial, and depression regarding our painful loss and the legitimate fears that we and those we care about will become seriously ill. But Endings are normal, and as leaders we must support their expression and help our staff teams and co-workers cope with them.

And then there are Beginnings, new ways of working and living that may feel clunky at first, but which start to become familiar soon enough: How do we get work done with kids climbing the walls? How do we seek privacy to work when both parents (if that is the situation) can get things done? This requires communication and problem solving for families, and it isn’t something we have prepared to discuss. In talking with another client, she shared that while almost everyone must now work from home, most do not have computers connected and outfitted to do so. Yes, there are real costs associated with addressing these needs, but just as powerful are the channels by which staff can express their needs without feeling guilty or incompetent, and how managers listen to these concerns without marginalizing them in the face of not knowing the answers. I’m also hearing many workplaces either continuing with ‘business as usual,’ (which is likely quite dangerous as a public health matter) or pretending that this will only last 2-3 weeks. I get it. I’ve felt that way, as well; it just isn’t helpful for addressing the real emergent needs of the situation. 

Finally, there is the abyss of the Neutral Zone, that uncertain period that may go on for a much longer period than we accept: How widespread will COVID-19 spread in our community? How long will it be before we return to ‘normal’ ways of working? What will the new ‘normal’ actually be and how will I cope with it? How will the company survive? 

These are all normal questions to ask at this time, and they have answers that will only emerge over time. We just don’t know, and as leaders we feel unprepared to go to our staff teams with such responses. But if we honestly navigate the Neutral Zone with openness, respect, and compassion, we will retain necessary energy and collective good will to manage the answers once they are known to us.

  1. Go back to Core Intentions and Values, and Focus on the “Why” in making work choices: It is easy to assume that our work days start and end at the usual times, that the workload should be comparable to what it has been previously, and that we should expect ourselves to “stay focused” on those same customer service goals we have had before. But these aren’t necessarily What Matters. Just as in the start of the book, I encourage you to look inward, to focus on your core intentions and values, and then the personal and professional Core Story that guides you. Nurture those actions, and allow yourself to let go of some of the other minutiae that can wait. If you aren’t sure which things are priorities, consult with others to gain clarity — together, you can figure this out.
  1. Certainly, allow yourself energizing diversions and nurture the creative spirit! Take a few minutes to doodle, listen to a song, do a word puzzle, or call a friend. But also remind yourself to focus on those things for which you have energy and not get wrapped up in vague assertions that, “I have to get this done.” 

This is a start. We are going to need to consider and reconsider our work priorities and life priorities quite a bit over the coming weeks and months. Please add your ideas and continue the conversation.

Decisions, Decisions

How are decisions made in your organization? Many organizations simply assume a hierarchical chain of command that is reflected in position power: Staff report to supervisors, who report to Directors, who report to VPs, up to the CEO. Decisions are made by those “up the food chain,” and the jobs of those below are to comply and implement those decisions. We accept this structure and its natural consequences as if it were preordained by some inexorable power or divinity. 

This approach persists despite well-known and understood realities of organization life:

  • Decisions are often best made by those closest to the impact of the decision;
  • Consultation and collaboration lead to better quality solutions to problems and decisions regarding those problems; and  
  • Customers are best served when staff are empowered to quickly respond and address issues as they are faced.

What alternatives exist to this dominant model? While we could radically and fundamentally change decision-making through an approach like the Holacracy model (now famously implemented at Zappos Shoes, among other companies),10 there are more incremental approaches that can be readily integrated into our current structures. A few considerations:

Decision-Making Methods

I like to consider a spectrum of decision-making options available to address any given issue. Over time, groups can readily discern the types of issues that are best addressed by a given approach, and place them in “decision baskets” so everyone transparently understands how they will be decided. Each method can have an appropriate application if wisely matched to circumstances and needs. For example, we might delegate technical decisions to specialists on a given issue, and they might seek consensus on highly important questions before acting upon them. On other questions, we might seek full staff advice, but after consultation a manager might make the decision. Teams need to assess the situation and consult with others; the choice of decision-making method is often a group’s first important decision. By being transparent about which types of issues fall within each basket, trust and clarity are engendered. If issues arise that are beyond the anticipated sets of issues, there is a clear process by which such challenges are assigned to a basket for resolution. 

We also need to create opportunities for groups to make their best decisions. This requires us to navigate what Sam Kaner calls the “Groan Zone,”11 that phase of the process where everyone is so tired of deliberating that they want to give up and make a decision. But the Groan Zone is also an important learning opportunity, for it is through the strange ideas that come from unanticipated people, we find the nuggets that form innovative solutions. We must respect the capacity of the group to determine its best course of action, and by clarifying the appropriate approaches to decision-making around a given issue, channel energy more constructively and transparently.

Decision TypePlainly SpokenStrengths & Weaknesses
Autocratic“I am The Decider.”S: Clear, efficient.
W: Isolated from outside perspectives. Others may feel disenfranchised.
Consultative“What do you think? I want to hear from you before I make a decision.”S: Clear, includes more perspectives, but still can be efficient. Increased ownership of decision.
W: Consultations can go on endlessly and still people may feel excluded. Decisions can get lost among other priorities.
Persuasive Minority (Political)“We may be a small group, but we are influential and persistent.”S: Passionate stakeholders are engaged and influential, so their interests are addressed…this can help with implementation.
W: Majority views and expertise are excluded or overlooked.
Expert (Technocratic)“Let’s use an expert panel and have them decide.”S: Evidence-based decisions that are defensible and documented. More likely to be objective and have credibility, as such.
W: Some may question biases and expertise, possibly feel some types of experience are excluded.
Averaging (Compromise)“Let’s compromise and pick a mid-point.”S: Efficiently moves forward on contentious issues. Satisfactory to most people.
W: Perspectives remain positional, as underlying needs and concerns go unaddressed.
Majority Rules“Let’s vote and let the majority decide.”S: Clear, efficient, inclusive of all with ‘standing.’ Most people satisfied.
Positions remain positional and minority may feel resentment.
Consensus“Let’s talk things through until all are satisfied with the decision.”S: Thorough, inclusive, focuses on underlying concerns. Often results in superior decisions and broad ownership to implement.
W: Time-consuming. Can have “tyranny of mediocrity” shadow when some become exhausted with the process.
No Decision (Null)“Whatever happened? No decision seems to have been made”S: Whatever the natural consequences are, they happen. Those whose interests prefer no decision are satisfied.
W: Many are dissatisfied and disillusioned, taking a toll on interest in future participation.
Decision Making Grid

Exercise: Align Decision-Making Approaches with What is Needed        

WHO: Solo           

WHY: To clarify the current state of decision-making in your organization, from which we may explore other options. 

HOW: 

Step 1: Identify “decision baskets” that readily batch various types of decisions into transparent processes for their resolution. Some decisions will be by consensus, some by majority rule, some by delegated and recognized subject matter experts (SME’s), some by those with hierarchical position power as managers, some independently by individuals charged with a scope of work. 

Step 2: Relate your responses here to those of the previous exercises we’ve been discussing regarding Communication: How might these two factors be addressed so that more transparent, inclusive Communication may be used to support effective Decision-Making? 

Building and Repairing Trust in Working Relationships

In What Matters at Work, we talk a great deal about dealing with issues of conflict, transition, and meaningful conversations. Underlying each of these topics is the issue of Trust, which often is in short supply in our workplaces. Even more powerful is the concept of Betrayal, that persistent wound and pain when trust has been lost. This is important in any relationship (families, communities, friendships), but its consequences specifically for the workplace will be examined here. 

What exactly do we mean by “Trust?” I see three discreet ways it is expressed: 

  • Transactional Trust relates to those substantive promises we make to one another that we will do certain things. For example, “I promised I would show up for the meeting.” or “You promised to deliver the project by Friday.” If we are reliable people, we earn transactional trust. Conversely, to fail to deliver on our promises is to betray that trust, and we are then seen as “unreliable” in that regard. Much of our productivity at work relies, at its foundation, upon transactional trust. 
  • Emotional Trust relates to feeling safe interacting with another person, understanding without question that such interactions can be respectful, validating, and otherwise emotionally supportive. When we demean one another (or are seen as doing so), emotional trust is betrayed and a deep wound often results that makes people reluctant to speak honestly or vulnerably with one another. In the workplace, emotional trust is essential if we are to raise difficult issues, express concerns over project direction, react to another’s comments that may be experienced as triggering fears and anxieties, etc. Once lost, people often avoid such discussions, allowing those concerns and opportunities to fester and remain unresolved. 
  • Identity Trust relates to how safe I feel my personal and professional identity is in your hands: Do you speak badly of me to others? Will you provide a good recommendation when it is needed? How well do you regard my skills and competence when considering assignments and promotions? If I trust you as a reliable keeper or my identity, I will rely upon that trust in situations that deeply matter to me. On the other hand, if I fear what you will say or with whom you will share concerns, I may withhold information or services. 

Each of these dimensions of trust is increasingly complex, difficult to regain once betrayed and lost. As such, we may also see a pathway to negotiate new “rules of engagement” that can rebuild trust: 

  • Transactional Trust – Establish action-based agreements, starting with smaller “promises to be fulfilled” (aka contracts), where success can be readily measured and accountability can be verified. Submitting reports, completing checklists, showing up for work hours, etc. can be examples of such transactions. 
  • Emotional Trust – Establish “Guidelines for a Safe and Constructive Work Environment,” together, based upon behaviors that demonstrate respect. Identify ways to let each other know of “violations” or “sensitivities” before they accumulate. After every meeting, review the Guidelines to identify successes, failures, and uncertainties in order to gain a broader understanding of how group members perceive the experiences they’ve had in the meeting. Expect differences! Patiently allow time to explore and understand how “Intent” and “Impact” may be quite different for various people. Over time, the need to review Guidelines may become less frequent, but it should not be abandoned. 
  • Identity Trust – Once you have experienced efforts to address Transactional and Emotional trust for a while, a deeper dialogue regarding Identity trust may be feasible. This should simply be a dialogue without action items, to restore faith that you all may understand one another’s experiences and perspectives. After this experience, if warranted, other meetings may be convened to develop strategies and actions that fulfill a broader commitment to rebuilding trust and healing. 

Additional Resources for those who want to explore this topic may be found in the work of Michelle and Dennis Reina, whose book Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace offers a wealth of information. You may also visit their site for an excellent article on this topic: https://reinatrustbuilding.com/ What are your experiences rebuilding trust in the workplace? Which types of trust seem to be most important in your organization?

WHAT MATTERS AT WORK: TAKE HEALTHY STEPS

 

By Harry Webne-Behrman 

The following is an excerpt from What Matters at Work, my recently published book for emerging, facilitative leaders who want to align their actions and those of their organizations with the things they truly value. Everything we do in Journey of Facilitation and Collaboration and Journey Beyond increases and improves our awareness of ourselves, the people in our groups, and the larger context in which we operate — “Taking Healthy Steps” helps us be keenly aware of the ways we may take such journeys. 

Our society tends to reward and reinforce “busy-ness”. We somehow think ourselves inadequate if our reply to others asking, “So, how are you doing?” is anything less than, “Wow…things are really busy for me these days!” It’s a badge of honor, a source of pride, and a core element of professional and personal identity to be flitting from place to place, multi- tasking, and then “playing hard” to the degree time allows it. Of course, we may simply continue to be swamped with chauffeuring kids, attending more meetings, or otherwise filling our proverbial plates: We are BUSY, and there seems to be little incentive to change. 

In his thought-provoking book, Essentialism (2014), author Greg McKeown invites us to focus solely on those things that really matter. He offers several approaches that dovetail quite well with things we’ve noticed, summarized in three core practices: 

● Do Less, But Better 

● Be Committed to the Rigorous Pursuit of Less 

● Focus on the Essential 

The practice that we wish to reinforce at this point is to Take Healthy Steps. This relates to focusing on the Essential, but it also means noticing that as we go from place to place, we take our Intention with us and incorporate a sense of Beauty and Appreciation, as well. 

I make an effort to take at least 10,000 steps each day, as this is one way I bring my intention to stay fit and upright into my routine. But I do more than merely walk from place to place: I try to bring “spring” in my step, noticing my energy level and state of being, perhaps singing to myself for part of the journey. I try to notice the world around me, the sun and trees and people, and appreciate that by walking about I am able to notice very different things than when I drive. 

I have also noticed over the years that, as I walk the areas where I work or live, I meet people I know; this is a great opportunity to connect regarding a project or an idea, or simply to be with friends and colleagues. This awareness has resulted in generally trying to leave an extra few minutes for that walk, so I don’t resent meeting people I want to see. If no such encounter occurs, it allows me the time to notice my environment a bit more completely and refocus my attention on the meeting about to occur before I enter the space where it will happen. As we discuss elsewhere, relationships are the fundamental building blocks of Community; such encounters are actually “work” that is productive, if kept in proper proportion to the other purposes at hand. 

My partner, Lisa, is a voracious walker and has been for many years. Every year for her birthday, she selects a hike and thinks through some of the key milestones along the route. She dedicates this anniversary of her birth as a day of reflection and renewal, both in intellectual terms and in physical terms. Together, we also chart out regular hikes, and consider such events to be excellent ways to both connect together and to have conversations about dilemmas in our work and our family. All along the way, we try to stride in a manner consistent with our broader intentions. 

As a result, I often have time for Connection (when walking with Lisa), Reflection (alone), and Synthesis (to/from meetings). Each aspect matters, and it dawns on me that we don’t often allow such a routine to offer us these important ingredients. My ‘quality of life’ tends to be better when all three ingredients feed one another on a given day. If I Connect with people, especially those important in my life, I tend to be stimulated, energized, and purposeful. Whether I am in Working or Relational mode, I get nourished by interesting conversation about worthy topics. It takes time, and it doesn’t happen in the rushed formalities of e-mail encounters. 

Lastly, Synthesis allows the opportunity to make sense of all we experience, sort out the nuggets of life lessons, and determine what is worth acting upon and how best to do so. Synthesis helps us sort the “Urgency/Importance” matrix and find the meaningful currents in our work – otherwise, we are likely to respond without taking proper stock of the best pathways before us. As we will discuss later around Wellness and Well-Being, the workplace needs to support such behaviors as an integral element of an organization that focuses on What Matters. 

Exercise: Healthy Steps 

WHO: Solo 

WHY: To notice the way we use our transitions at various times of day, and reflect on ways they might be channeled in service to our Intentions. 

HOW: Step 1: Take a few moments to reflect on how we spend our time walking (or otherwise traveling) from place to place. In doing so, try to notice your pace, energy, and mindset as you walk:

  • Am I rushing to this next meeting? What tension am I bringing to the meeting because of it?  

● Do I have an unresolved “bother” that I am now noticing as I walk, as it shows up in my tension and attitude? Do I have a way to put it aside so I can focus with full and best intentions and be present in my next interactions? 

● Am I distracted by the beauty of the walk, taking me in a new, unanticipated direction that I actually appreciate more than my intended destination? What does that mean? 

Step 2: These are all useful things to notice: Consider other ways to demonstrate and practice “taking healthy steps” in this Journey, including non-physical ways so that this is a more inclusive and accessible practice….If it is helpful, write down these ideas to use later. 

By slowing down, I tend to notice more.

By listening, I tend to understand the Needs of others better.

By taking time, I get to Meaningful Outcomes faster.