Healing tensions in the workplace

NOT the correct way to solve a conflict

Tensions in the workplace are something we are used to everyday. We face everything from small tensions (« oh by the way, it’d be cool if, next time, you’d give me a heads-up when you’re going to give a presentation, so I can join. ») to big tensions (« for the hundredth time, will you PLEASE tell me when you’re going to give a presentation?! »).

This is something we experience, but we rarely try to address the problems behind it. When we talk about these problems, it’s mostly chatter or a political game between managers. Accordingly, chatter and political moves in the workplace have become the norm over the years.

As a startup cofounder, I know I have some bias in evaluating and sensing these tensions. Some never come up to me. Some, I discover late… sometimes too late.

Yet, if my experience at OpenClassrooms has proven anything, it’s that history tends to repeat itself. We’re a sine curve; we have great times and bad times. It comes and goes.
At first, I wanted to only have great times, but I have discovered over time that it’s pointless. You don’t decide to only have great times. Shit happens. That’s life.

From failure acceptance to conflict acceptance

Many startups now talk about “accepting failures”. We’ve discovered that facing our failures is a really great way to learn. That we can build successes upon failures.

However, when it comes to conflicts, we still rarely accept them. We ignore them. People are somehow discouraged to face them in the workplace. Shhh, don’t talk about this. Only be happy. Smile to everyone.

But that’s crazy. We end up being dishonest with people, and we don’t even realize we’re doing it.

When it comes to conflicts, we still rarely accept them. We ignore them.

Are you someone who tends to say: “I really don’t like hypocrisy”?. Then it might be the time to look at the mirror and think about all the times we’ve been dishonest ourselves, even for small things. Make a list — as exhaustive as you can — of the recent conflicts you had with people and that you didn’t talk about. Is it long? Is it scary?

Good, you’re on the right track.

From conflict acceptance to conflict treatment

Accepting and recognizing a conflict is a first step. Don’t get me wrong: it’s hard. Most people don’t make it past that first step. Still, it’s only just the first step.

Now that you have a better overview of these conflicts, you should look forward to treating them. It’s an even scarier part: you have to actually talk to the people you’re in conflict with. How do you do that?

A conflict is strictly private. You can’t expect a resolution by talking up in the open space where everybody can listen.

There are many ways to deal with a conflict, but it looks like a framework is emerging in some companies. I found really interesting stuff on this matter in Reinventing Organizations by Frédéric Laloux.

Here are a few common rules we find among these companies:

  • A conflict is between 2 people. Don’t try to handle a conflict with many people at the same time: it will be too complex. Instead, break it down in small “one-to-one” conflicts.
  • A conflict is strictly private. You can’t expect a resolution by talking up in the open space where everybody can listen. Find a quiet room. Or, better, leave the building and invite the other person to have a cup of tea/coffee with you. Talking in a different environment has proven really efficient for me.
  • When dealing with the conflict, you should try to both put your egos aside. Make it clear from the beginning: “It’s not about you personally but rather about this one behavior/trend/etc.”. Most people tend to get very nervous because they think it’s personal (and many times, it is). You should not make it personal. You will only receive backfire if the other one feels personally attacked. So take the time you need to tell them that it’s not about who they are.

Usually, a conflict can be sorted out in the following general order:

  1. First, the two of you should talk together to find a solution, alone. If you do it the right way, you can solve most of the small conflicts that way.
  2. If it doesn’t work and you don’t find a solution, you should bring someone else you both agree with: a mediator. They won’t have the power to decide how to solve the conflict, but they will ask questions that will help you to deal with the conflict.
  3. If it still doesn’t work, bring a group of people as mediators. Usually, this step is enough to find a solution — provided that both of you are really trying to solve the conflict.

An example’s worth a thousand words

I’m a big fan of examples. An example is never enough, but it certainly helps in understanding an idea.

Let’s imagine two people in a company: Bob and Alice. Bob notices that Alice is almost always checking her smartphone while he’s giving his monthly reporting presentation. It has started to hurt his feelings.

In most companies, Bob would slowly get angry with Alice, but would never tell her why. Therefore, Alice would notice this passive agressive behavior, thinking, “I guess Bob doesn’t like me.”. It might look shortsighted, but it happens everywhere, everyday.

In our company, Bob and Alice are trained in conflict resolution strategies. Bob recognizes why he gets mad at Alice. It’s because she checks her smartphone. Bob has successfully identified that he has a conflict with Alice. First step: done!

Now for the hard part. Bob starts talking :

– Hey Alice, mind if we talk for a minute?

– Err, ok?…

Alice follows Bob in a quiet room.

– So here’s the thing, Bob says. I noticed that you’re almost always checking your smartphone during my presentations…

– Not always!

– Sure, but I think we can both agree that it has happened many times.

– Yep, but I’m listening at the same time.

At this point, Alice gets a bit nervous. She can think that Bob has something against her. Bob tries to make it clear that it’s not against her, but that her behavior means something and he wants to find a solution.

– I know… I know people can do many things at the same time, but I feel something is wrong and maybe we can find a solution to this together. Maybe my presentation isn’t always useful for you?

– No, no! It’s not that, I need your data. But I get it as a PDF that I can read quickly, and it’s enough for me. You don’t need to repeat what’s in your report.

– Oh, right, I see… Then maybe you think I shouldn’t do my presentation?

– I don’t know, it depends. Some people are more comfortable hearing, others reading. Reading is enough for me.

– Sure, well, then why do you come?

– Because you invite me, so I try to be there.

– I don’t want you to come if it’s not useful for you! It’s ok with me if you stop coming to my meetings.

– You sure?

– Yeah, of course!

And just like that, the problem has been sorted out.

Think about this conversation for a second. The reason behind this conflict is obvious when stated, but it could have become so much worse over time if Bob and Alice did not take care of it.

This kind of environment where people feel comfortable to speak about their feelings might not happen overnight. In my opinion, this is a good reason why you should start now. It might not work the first time, but that’s okay. The benefits that everyone in your company will get in the end are so worth it.