There was a time when being labelled “conflict averse” was something of a criticism. I am not sure that I ever understood what people really meant by it, because surely the opposite: “conflict inclined” is worse.
What is clear is that whatever our attitude to conflict, when a situation arises it is generally better to take an intentional approach to solving it rather than try to ignore or avoid it.
I was reminded of this while delivering a session for a large pharma company recently. One participant in particular had shown up very strongly, they were deeply insightful and powerful in their contributions. However when we got into a conversation about dealing with some poor behaviour from their line manager they lost all of their power and insight.
Here was a successful professional whose career is being compromised by their relationship with their line manager. An individual who can deal with all sorts of situations, except when it comes to dealing with “conflict” with an authority figure.
So – let’s analyse this situation and see if we can find a solution, that can apply to any of us that find ourselves in a similar place. A person who is otherwise capable is substantially diminished by a situation with an authority figure.
The first question is what happened? Not because the details are important, but because the reaction to whatever happened seems to be disproportionate – unless the authority figure has done something truly terrible, which is unlikely.
If what happened is not terrible and our reaction is disproportionate, the implication is that the individual is being “triggered” by the situation to and by a previous event. Typically this would be a previous or childhood incident or relationship with another authority figure.
For example; we might have had an overbearing teacher, in our teens who repeatedly criticised us for things over which we had no control. This might set a trigger, which lays dormant and unknown for years, until we again perceive ourselves as being criticised for something we cannot control. At this moment the trigger is pulled and we are unconsciously psychologically transported back to our teens and our relationship with that overbearing teacher. We feel the same sense of powerlessness as we did as a teen, even though the objective circumstances are quite different and the new situation is one we could deal with.
In this situation we have to face up to this “inner’ event, before we can be objective about the external event. Happily, simply joining the dot’s and identifying the trigger can be enough. We don’t even always have to identify the specific moment or individual, it can be enough to identify the broader circumstance or relationship. If this is not enough we might need to dig a bit deeper. The usual suspects are any childhood authority figure – typically teachers or parents, but religious figures, sports coaches and scout leaders also crop up. Siblings can also come into play, although they are more likely to affect relationships with peers than authority figures.
Once we have worked through any potential triggering, it may well be that there is nothing more to deal with. Simply releasing the trigger is enough to allow our own reaction to become a response and we can deal with these situations easily in the future – although we might need to remind ourselves to do so.
If our reaction was not disproportionate, we must deal, objectively and intentionally with the situation.
The second question is “what would we truly like the outcome to be?”
When we feel wronged in any way, there is always a temptation to “vent” to let our anger out and tell people what we think of them. However, this is rarely productive. We need to get past our emotions (perhaps by letting them out safely to a trusted friend, or just taking our time) and focus on the best possible outcome.
Once we have clarity on the outcome we can consider the conversation we need to have to get to it. If having this conversation feels daunting, we can practice it with our patient friend, until we feel confident. If our friend knows the authority figure in question that may help to factor in potential reactions and responses so that we can adjust our approach.
What we are looking for is a way of “selling” our desired outcome to the authority figure. If we are looking for a change in behaviour or an apology, we will need to include, what’s in it for them? What benefit do they gain or pain do they avoid through doing whatever we are suggesting?
The main thing is to face up to these situations promptly, intentionally and effectively rather than allowing them to fester. Each time we are able to do this we take a step forward in our lives, feel better about ourselves and are more effective in our work.
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