Volume 8 | Issue 9Putting it in context
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Don’t Ignore the Potholes – Part 2
In part one (1) of this article, I introduced the notion that built-in inertia exists in most companies when resolving workplace conflict and that inertia is even stronger when rooted in cultural differences. Disagreements arising from cultural misunderstandings are like those potholes in the street that gradually grow wider and deeper.
When many employees experience these types of cultural disagreements, they will, almost always, choose avoidance. Most employees see these “potholes” as something they have to find a way around because they see it as someone else’s problem to solve. So the reason they walk around this type of problem at work, jump over it, take a detour, and generally do whatever they can to pass it off to someone else comes down to one thing – who takes the first step.
Once a dispute is exposed that has its roots in a cultural issue, a powerful inertia is created that becomes very difficult to overcome, and the thing that drives that inertia is fear. A company’s environment often reflects the broader environment in which the company operates. The sharp cultural and political differences often on display create an environment where people are more careful about what they say or don’t say.
This caution carries over into many company environments where this reticence translates into fear of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, however well-intentioned. In these new hyper-aware workplaces, one of the most common sources of misunderstanding is the words people use. The comments and terms used, when, and how people use them can create a minefield because too many employees use important words based on their perception of what a set of words mean instead of what they actually mean.
I identified four words earlier in the previous article: disagreement, argument, conflict, and dispute, and emphasized each one had a clear and distinct meaning and purpose. Yet, how many employees in any company can explain clearly what each word means? The reality is very few can do this because, over the last three decades, language discipline has collapsed, both inside companies and more broadly in our culture.
I describe how these words differ in my book The Point of Convergence: A Path to Understanding Conflict Resolution, and I’ve written about them in several of my newsletters. If you read the books and letters I wrote, you will discover what makes them different and how those differences affect other types of conflict.
It is important to note the above words reflect things about people who are “not on the same page” when dealing with a particular issue. For example, in most conflicts the idea of compromise is essential to a successful outcome, and three of the four words ultimately involve compromise. Yet, in a situation where one of these words is most appropriate, efforts to compromise do more harm than good. Knowing these differences determines how successful you will be in restoring a broken work environment. Another reason many are reluctant to deal with workplace conflict is because employees fear being blamed when attempts to resolve the conflict fail.
In conflict environments, employees point fingers, make excuses, and stay as far from the person asking “why it happened” as they can. Being the focus why questions is seen as risky and sometimes dangerous to careers, especially when asked at the wrong time in front of the wrong person.
I rarely introduce the why element in discussions involving words such as disagreements, arguments, disputes, or conflict. The why question tends to introduce an interrogatory or prosecutorial tone or tenor is that is rarely productive in these types of discussions.
The “why” has value in only two places;
One is in the lessons-learned phase when a company’s leadership looks to take corrective action or improve relevant procedures and processes based on solutions created.
The second is when that type of question pursues a deeper, more hidden conflict. It reflects the recognition of a deeper problem with the potential to cause significant harm that in turn drives two fundamental questions,
How did it remain below the surface for as long as it has?
An analysis of these two questions often reveals or discloses motives and behaviors that are at odds with a company’s core values and standards.
Once a hidden conflict is exposed, these questions will show, more often than not, that the motives and behaviors belonging to employees who fill essential roles in that company are separate from the interests of the company. Sometimes this kind of question exposes incompatible motivations and actions that originate in the C-suite, but what is more common is for employees between the C-suite and the supervisor are operating with different agendas.
One other point about the Why question: Even the most skilled senior executives don’t handle it well. Most businesses operate on a hierarchical structure that makes it inevitable that leaders – even those skilled at asking questions – will inject a prosecutorial tone in the pursuit of an answer.
Not only does an organization’s structure drive the use of this question, but outside influences also play a role. The “why” is a subtext in much of what goes on behind many conflicts. No matter how much one tries to present this neutrally, it always puts people on guard, and many times, defensive.
That type of question carries the immediate implication that someone should have done something else first to prevent the conflict in the first place. And once a person asks the first why question, other similar questions will multiply. One can’t overstate this last point.
Among the many why question that will rapidly populate a conflict-driven conversation are questions that attempt to lead someone to agree with your course of action. Questions such as “aren’t you going to speak directly with the person involved?’ and ’when are you going to speak directly with the person involved”?
The goal in resolving conflict is to expand the number of options. Why questions seldom expand the range of options for solving a disagreement; they inevitably reduce the choices of those most directly involved in the conflict.
It is important to to note the points raised in this and the previous article illustrate that using analogies and metaphors is an important technique in resolving many conflicts. It allows those involved in a disagreement to address many issues in a non-threatening manner.
Analogies and metaphors are essential for another reason. For reasons that quickly become obvious, managers and supervisors can’t address certain conflicts directly. Those rooted in cultural differences are the type of disputes that fall into this category. Addressing these issues begins by recognizing the fear or reluctance of supervisors and employees to involve themselves. That fear will not be overcome with the typical “we are a team, let’s work together and figure this out” language.
Once these conflicts flare up and disrupt the department or organization, managers and supervisors can’t jump on these issues with the expectation of a quick result. While senior management may want to move quickly on these issues, acting too fast will worsen things.
Taking a little more time to ask questions, sometimes more than one might expect, will allow for an effective metaphor to carry a storyline that will enable the parties to participate in a conversation. They can exchange ideas for moving forward towards a resolution of the disagreement.
Given the pressures and dynamics of many organizations, this approach creates apparent challenges. Yet, a great deal of data exists on the difficulties in overcoming conflicts arising from cultural misunderstandings. Moreover, that data also shows that moving too quickly or aggressively can worsen things.
Food for Thought: Moving fast is not the same thing as going somewhere. (Robert Anthony)
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