I thought about it for days, rehearsing all of the mean things I would say to him once I got the nerve. My supervisor and I had traveled to Chicago to attend a customer conference. On the morning of the event, I started to haul in the goods: promo items, trays of sandwiches, cases of bottled water, box after heavy box of books. Then my phone rang, his number popped up on the screen.
"Hey, I'm going to need to stick around the hotel today. I've got some reports due this afternoon."
A year earlier, I would have rolled my eyes and carried on. But today was different. I was six months pregnant and downright furious. As I unpacked each of those boxes by myself, a thin trail of sweat surfaced down the front of my white maternity shirt. I stewed over how rude and insensitive he was. And I swore I would never get over this. Never.
Big or small, slights in the workplace are hard to shake. We all join our professional environments with a range of temperaments and experiences. I, for one, come from a long line of accomplished Italian grudge holders. I nodded knowingly when I read that line in Liane Moriarty's Big Little Lies: “They say it's good to let your grudges go, but I don't know, I'm quite fond of my grudge. I tend it like a little pet.”
And while it may feel good to harbor ill will short-term, research shows that bitterness is both physically and mentally detrimental. Loneliness, isolation, and pent-up animosity cause an uptick in cortisol and a reduction of oxytocin which translates into harmful stressors on the body.
I turned to Monica Wofford, leadership expert and author of Make Difficult People Disappear, to get to the bottom of what makes workplace conflict so complex.
“Workplace disagreements include the same challenging attributes as personal agreements, such as gender differences, generational differences, personalities, and of course, history,” Wofford explained. “The primary difference is that layered over those factors in workplace disagreement is the element of power, not to mention authority and consequences.”
The trick is to prepare for conflicts before they happen by developing a mindset open to a range of possibilities. Wofford offers these tips to get on the right track:
- Examine the “shoulds.” Everyone comes to work with a mental set of “shoulds” for their co-workers. Quiet but persistent, these “shoulds” often make us feel entitled to stand in judgement of our peers. Thoughts like “she should speak to her female co-workers with more respect” or “He should have been better prepared for that meeting” fuel our disappointment and anger when our expectations aren’t met. We have to look closely at the legitimacy of these “shoulds” and how they color our thinking.
- Recognize our differences. There is a general tendency to label behavior that is different from our own as “difficult.” Think back to the classmate who couldn’t sit quietly through the school assembly. Even then, the dominant thought was that she was difficult. Knowing what we know now about the myriad reasons children are challenged by a solid hour of sitting, it’s clear that she might simply have had different needs and limitations. Bringing that same mindset to the workplace gives us the ability to release expectations. Don't be afraid to work out your personal differences. Connecting dots in a thoughtful manner supports positive outcomes.
- Explore your fears. There’s an unspoken fear factor to workplace candor. Rather than telling someone what’s on your mind, it is often easier to quietly grouse about the unfairness of the situation. Are you holding back from an honest talk with a coworker because you’re afraid you’ll be perceived as too blunt? Are you hesitant to share your idea at the team meeting because you’re scared you’ll be put down? This aversion to being truthful makes it very difficult for others to live up to your expectations; they have to know what you want in order to respond appropriately.
- Be vulnerable. Vulnerability in the office can be tough. It’s generally the first thing we look for in others, but the last thing we want to reveal in ourselves. Dr. Brené Brown, one of the world’s leading researchers on authenticity, found that one of the critical components for great leadership is the willingness to be vulnerable with others. She also connects vulnerability to increased innovation, trust, and engagement. People don’t trust perfection. By sharing our vulnerability, we start to form bridges with colleagues who might not have otherwise trusted us.
- Look to the leaders. Some people are naturally inclined to be vulnerable and recognize differences in others without judgement. Look to those peer leaders to get cues on how to make connections. According to Wofford, “Those who are highly skilled in empathy will sit and listen to the problems of their co-workers, even clear off their desk and schedule to do so, thus inviting more of the same. These people begin to be seen as someone who ‘gets me’ and the dramatic sharing repeats.” This dramatic sharing results in a better office climate, ripe with truthful feedback and support.
Ultimately, I was able to let go of the grudge I held against my former supervisor for his absence at the customer conference. It was tough to abandon my unhealthy, albeit comfy, nest of grievances. But doing so led to five more years of a positive work relationship. Wofford says this is the whole point of examining and freeing these resentments:
“Releasing grudges provides additional brain space and potential energy to be spent on more productive efforts, but the most important benefit is having a clean slate in your workplace relations.”
Your turn: How have you managed workplace disagreements? Let us know in the comments below.
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