Conflicts of Interest
Everything you ever wanted to know about conflicts at home, at work, or in the neighborhood.
Santa has mad skills when it comes to deciding who’s naughty or nice, but I’ve been wondering lately how the rest of us determine such things. After listening to loads of people both in and out of conflict situations, I’ve come to the conclusion that what we do is collect lots of information and then funnel the bits into an internal meter. The device considers everything we know (and some things we don’t know) and then the arrow points in one direction or the other. Some of the criteria we consider actually aren’t very nice on our part, but that’s beside the point.
To get the meter to stick clearly on the nice side someone has to do what we want them to do, when we want them to do it, and they can rarely complain about anything. They will stay on the nice end of the spectrum if they make us feel good about ourselves. And, it’s a bonus if they almost always put us first and make personal sacrifices in order for us to get what we want.
On the other end of the meter is the naughty spectrum. It’s easy to say someone “isn’t very nice” if they tell us no, if they don’t go along with our plans, or when they see things from a viewpoint that frustrates us. People are naughty if they make us feel bad when we’re around them. Anyone can accomplish getting our naughty meter to ring loudly if they toss a barb or two our way, point out our flaws (real or imagined), or lie to us. Santa wouldn’t appreciate that kind of behavior and neither does the naughty or nice meter in all of us.
What this all boils down to is that a nice or naughty meter is an internal mechanism that measures how much we trust a person has our back. If you say what you mean and you mean what you say; and then you do what you said you’re going to do, we trust you and think you’re nice. When you take our feelings into consideration each and every time you talk to or about us, even if you’re telling us something you know we won’t like, we still think you’re nice. If you disagree with us without being disagreeable, we trust that you care; we presume that you’re nice.
If we can’t trust you to tell us the truth, or if you appear to be unconcerned about the impact your words or actions have on us, well, then you’re just naughty. Obviously immoral and illegal things are naughty, but on an interpersonal level we often put lesser considerations into our nice or naughty meters. If you overstate your abilities; if you boast, brag, or talk only about yourself, that’s not nice. There doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of middle ground with these things because often anything that’s “not nice” hits squarely on the naughty end of the meter.
Santa’s meter may be much simpler than our nice or naughty meters; we are complicated beings after all and the way in which we measure such things can be as complex and unique as we are. The one thing we do have in common with the jolly old sort, though, is that we often wish we were all nicer more than we are naughty. Let’s work on that.
Suddenly it comes to you; that great idea that solves a tough problem or helps the company move to the next level, or just make everyone’s job a little easier. Your thought is innovative, well-presented, and then, yikes!, ripped off.
Idea theft can put you in an awkward position. How do you take back ownership of your intellectual property without looking like a toddler grabbing back her favorite teddy bear from a kid on the playground? I like to start by treating the act much like I would if I suspected my friend’s husband was cheating on her. You could do the same. Go to the person you believe has hijacked your idea and start the conversation by saying you’re just checking on something. Then outline the events that have caused you to believe the person took credit for your idea. Be open to the possibility that you have misinterpreted what’s happened so ask a question like, “From your perspective, how was that idea generated?” followed by, “Do you remember us talking about it in my office?” If he tells a different story, say something like, “Maybe we’re remembering it differently” and then share your recollection. The purpose of asking the questions and sharing your perspective is to create the space for the person to talk openly about what happened without getting defensive.
After you’ve completed the fact-finding phase, clearly state your expectations moving forward. For example, state, “In the future I’d like any ideas we discuss together to be presented together. As far as this instance goes, I’d like you to let (whomever) know that this was my idea. You can do that on your own, we can do it together, or I can do it on my own. Which would you prefer?” If you end up doing it on your own, avoid sounding like a tattletale. Go to your boss and say you’d like his advice on how to handle something. Briefly go over the events and say that how the idea was presented was surprising to you. Ask, “How should I deal with this so that I’m setting good boundaries but not upsetting the group dynamics?”
And, speaking of bosses, what if the idea thief is your boss? Admittedly, that’s a little trickier than dealing with a coworker, so start by deciding if it’s worth it to you to say something at all. Is this the first time he’s taken credit for your plan? Is it a somewhat small idea? Could it have been an oversight on his part? If the answer is yes, make a mental note and see if it happens again. Then, wait a bit to see how thing unfold. Your boss may still have plans that include you so see if she’s going to ask you to take the lead, share your idea with the group, or take an active role in determining next steps. Again, make a mental note and watch the path the idea takes.
If your boss misses opportunities to give you credit or fails to acknowledge your contribution in other ways, do a few things differently moving forward. Share any ideas you have with an audience and ask how the idea will be shared with others. Saying something like, “Would you like me to present the idea or provide a few slides for when you share my idea with everyone?” sends the message that you’re making note of the fact that this is your idea and you have an expectation that she will include you in the opening credits. You can even try something a little more lighthearted to make your point by saying, “I’m making a note of this so that if the idea gets used, I can add it to the plus side of my review!”
If you’ve decided that you’re okay addressing the issue with your worth boss, a private conversation is the only way to go. Start by letting him know that you’re excited the idea was used, that you had hoped your name would have been mentioned, and that you were disappointed when that didn’t happen. Then shut up! Give him space to respond and keep the door open to talk about how the two of you will handle similar situations in the future.
Let your boss know about what motivates you (recognition, job security, job growth, responsibility). Let him know that you believe your job is to make him look good while building your own career. Ask if, in the future, there could be a way for him to present ideas that reflect well on both your reputations.
Finally, keep in mind that ideas in the workplace don’t necessary belong to us. There’s a balance between doing what’s right for the company and doing what’s right for you as an individual. And, because of that you should never gossip about the situation to others, keep good ideas only to yourself, or become really angry at others you think are treading on your territory. Trying to hurt the organization almost always ends up hurting you and your reputation—and that’s not an original idea on my part at all!
When it comes to conflict we probably share some regrets. Regret for the things we said, regret for the things we didn’t say, and certainly regret for more than our share of poor reactions. I saw this article a long time ago and stashed it away to share with you when it felt right. It feels right; so here’s a slightly edited version of it.
This article was written by Bronnie Ware, who has worked with a countless number of patients who are sadly seeing their last days on earth. When Bronnie had questioned the patients about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently, common themes surfaced again and again. Here are the most common five:
The Top 5 Regrets
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. This was the most common regret of all. When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people have had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. It is very important to try and honor at least some of your dreams along the way.
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard – This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship.
Women also spoke of this regret. But as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence. By simplifying your lifestyle and making conscious choices along the way, it is possible to not need the income that you think you do. And by creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities, ones more suited to your new lifestyle.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings – Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.
As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. We cannot control the reactions of others. However, although people may initially react when you change the way you are by speaking honestly, in the end it raises the relationship to a whole new and healthier level. Either that or it releases the unhealthy relationship from your life. Either way, you win.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends – Often they would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content. When deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again. When you are on your deathbed, what others think of you is a long way from your mind. How wonderful to be able to let go and smile again, long before you are dying.
When people don’t know what’s happening they often get a movie going in their head that helps them explain the situation. The film versions they conjure up are rarely romantic comedies; rather, most resemble horror movies with terrible endings. A lack of honesty or openness at work can put everyone’s mental movie-making skills to the test.
I love a dramatic film as much as the next guy but when it comes to resolving conflict, I know I need to set my desire for a good story aside and focus on what’s real. With that said, we’ve probably all had coworkers who like to make even the most mundane topics sound intriguing and captivating. As long as you know that about them, don’t get too worked up when they want to send out those “I know something you don’t know” messages. If what you’re experiencing goes beyond that, address your concerns privately and give the person an opportunity to let you know if they’re in a position to share information. Accept that sometimes people are sworn to secrecy for a certain amount of time or that they may be in the “thinking” stages and need to explore a number of options before making an announcement.
Withholding information is one thing; one’s words not matching one’s actions is another. We’ve all had occasion to feel blindsided, disrespected, or embarrassed because we took someone at their word and then something else actually happened. When you find that someone has been less than honest give them a (private) opportunity to explain what happened. Our sense that someone didn’t tell the truth isn’t always accurate, so certainly give people the benefit of the doubt. If it turns out that your suspicions are true, let the person know that you expect more and that you’re willing to work on trusting them again. Move forward with an agreement that it won’t happen again.
We’re all human and when you find yourself in a circumstance in which you’ve been less than honest or were unnecessarily closed off about particular information, make whatever apologies you need to make, come clean, and be better than that from here on out. Keep in mind that you’re the star of your coworker’s mental movie, so work on creating a better ending.
Impracticable approaches to projects and tasks have certainly been the topic of many a gripe session between employees. The conversation often begins with one of them busting out with, “He’s never even done this job before,” and the other person responding with, “Really! What does he know?!” Having unrealistic expectations with your staff, boss, or coworkers can easily place you in the center of such a conflict.
If you’re experiencing push-back about your expectations, try a new approach. Learn more about what’s involved in a process so you can break down the steps and then discuss the specific points that are causing the disagreements rather than getting into a back-and-forth about the entire project. If you’re not comfortable starting from ground zero, let others tell you what is possible and negotiate from there.
If you feel a coworker or boss is asking you to do too much with too little, spend time planning (and practicing) how you’ll communicate your concerns without sounding like you’re whining or trying to get out of doing work. Providing solutions that include prioritizing are always a good thing. If you’re suggesting something should go to the compost pile, talk about both the downside and the upside for letting it go so you present yourself as seeing the big picture—not just advocating for your side. And, of course, if there’s a better, smarter way to accomplish a task, be sure to share your ideas as neutral as possible.
There’s an old saying in business that says you can have things fast, good, and affordable. Problem is, the best you can usually do is two out of three so decide which two are most important to you and go forward from there. Fast and affordable may not be good; and fast and good will probably cost you more than you’d like to pay. Expecting all three each and every time may be, well, unrealistic.
Change almost always brings fear. When a shift from the normal is announced, many employees can become hyper anxious as they wonder what creepy crawly things await them. Others rage. And, then there are those who hide from any change by sticking their head so deep in the sand they begin to suffocate. Most employees do a little of each of these actions that are examples of the tenth of a dozen behaviors that cause conflict in the workplace. Namely, being uncomfortable with change.
Rather than raging, hiding, or making yourself sick with anxiety, try processing your fear. Get a piece of paper and write down everything that will be different. Include things you’ll miss like people, tasks, or processes as well as aspects of the change that could potentially benefit you like networking with new people and tackling new tasks. Begin to focus on the positive and let go of the past by asking questions with the understanding that not all the answers will be readily available.
If processing on your own doesn’t ease the fear, talk things out privately with a trusted confidante. Be sure to avoid public, negative discussions and don’t participate in gossip. Allow yourself a finite period of time in which to wallow in your anxiety (like the weekend) and then set an example by speaking positively about the change. Talk about the silver lining for both you and your coworkers by giving examples of things you can now do that you couldn’t before. If you can’t find the silver lining, start to craft solutions for potential problems.
If someone you know is struggling with change, ask them to find their own opportunities in the new normal. Will they be able to spend more time with family or participate in their favorite outside activities? Will the increased job responsibilities enhance their resume and better prepare them for a promotion? Help them process their emotions by talking privately and letting them share what’s most upsetting about what’s happening. Sometimes it’s not the actual change that’s distressing but the way in which it was communicated that causes a poor reaction.
Whatever the reason for being uncomfortable, finding the positive in the new normal as quickly as possible helps. Sometimes the benefit is simply having a job in a bad economy. There may be very little you can impact with the uncertainty, but your attitude and approach to the news is always 100% under your control.
Do you work with someone whose shortcomings tug at your heart strings? Taking on the role of caregiver every now and then isn’t a bad thing; like helping a new employee find his way or mentoring someone who has an interest in learning from you. Nor is it wrong to help someone become more efficient or stretch their skills; no matter your position in the org chart.
#9 in our list of a Dozen Dirty Behaviors That Cause Conflict at Work is what happens when an employee relies too much on that helping hand and you’ve moved from aiding to rescuing. Other employees can get upset especially when the rescuing is at their expense for an extended period of time or happens a little too often.
To be clear, covering up for someone or asking someone to cover up for you is not the same as covering (or rescuing). Covering is a short term action like answering the phones when a coworker has an appointment outside the office or responding to customer emails while Cindy is on vacation. Covering up is more than that; like keeping someone in a position that’s beyond his capabilities even with additional training and coaching. That sort of rescuing isn’t doing him or his co-workers any favors.
If you’re covering up for a coworker, consider going to him and letting him know you think it’s time for him either to ask for whatever it is he needs to do his job properly—or you will. Talk to him about the benefit of having this out in the open like experiencing less stress or perhaps finding a job that better fits his skill set. You can cut the cord with compassion and dignity if you put the focus on the benefit for him rather than talking about the fact that you can’t take it any longer.
If you’re the one others are rescuing, consider stepping up to acknowledge what’s happening and presenting a proposal to change things. Admitting your shortcomings and asking management to work with you on a plan to improve may actually result in you getting better at your job than you thought possible.
I say, “Blah, blah, blah”, you say, “Blah, blah, blah”, nothing connects and then we’re both frustrated. #8 in our list of a dozen dirty behaviors that cause conflict at work is talking more than you listen.
Successful salespeople often close deals by first listening to their customer’s needs and then finding a way to respond with whatever it is they’re selling. If you follow their lead by developing the habit of starting most conversations with an open-ended question you’re sure to learn what your coworkers are focused on, what’s important to them, or where you might add value.
Trying to get a word in edgewise, though, with a talker can be challenging. When you have something to say but can’t find a place to jump in with your own thoughts, ask for the opportunity to do so. “When you’re ready, I have some ideas I’d like to share” is a great way to say, “Please be quiet long enough for me to say something” without offending the other person. Practice what you’ll say before you bring up ideas and then ask for uninterrupted time to deliver a succinct message. Another strategy is to let the other person talk as much as he wants and at some point let him know that you have something to say when he’s finished. While he’s talking make sure you’re following good listening techniques so he knows you hear and understand his point of view. Otherwise he may start repeating himself and you’re back to square one waiting for your turn to talk. Avoid “fake listening” which is when you’ve pointed your face in the right direction but what’s coming in sounds more like Charlie Brown’s teacher’s “Wa, Wa, Wa” than it does something you could repeat for a pop quiz. Maintain attentive eye contact—staring blankly in the other person’s direction is not attentive eye contact.
Listening more than you’re talking also includes showing you’re engaged by exhibiting open and receptive body language. Nodding and sitting up will demonstrate your interest. Take some notes for the purpose of reflecting back the information you’ve heard. Bring your own notes so when it’s your turn to talk you know what you’d like to say rather than trying to keep on ongoing list in your head while the other person is talking; your notes will also help you avoid interrupting.
In any conversation, asking questions to clarify or gain better understanding is always a good thing. A good friend likes to remind me that we have two ears and one mouth in the right proportion; which is our clue to listen twice as much as we talk.
Rushing in with a super-hero cape and special powers to fix whatever is ailing a project could result in the wrong problem being fixed while the real issue is tied to the railroad tracks with a steam engine barreling in its direction.
Welcome to #7 in the list of the Dirty Dozen Behaviors that Cause Problems at Work.
Today’s employers want staff who are problem-solvers. Knowing that, you may have a tendency to want to jump in and fix something just so you can tell him about all the troubles you’ve averted. If you rush in too quickly, though, you could make matters worse.
Taking a few minutes to ask some clarifying questions may be all it takes to understand the scope and depth of a problem. The way in which you ask those questions matters in terms of enflaming or calming those around you. Try to refrain from using any words, body language, or tone that can come across as accusatory or critical while you’re exploring all aspects of the event. You’ll probably be tempted to ask “why” a lot so practice saying, “So, you did this because….” and then let the person finish the sentence. I understand it’s really a “why” question in disguise but it’s an easier one to respond to.
Once you’ve explored the situation start eliciting ideas for a solution. Get more than your initial idea on the table; yours may still be the best answer but having a number of possible resolutions allows for a strategic response versus something that may be seen as knee-jerk if it doesn’t work out.
To help others avoid rushing in to fix things when you bring a problem, be prepared with three solutions so the other person knows that you understand the scope and depth of the issue and that you’ve given serious thought about to how to fix it. Only one idea makes you sound positional, two can come across as “either/or”, but three opens the door for discussion and, like I said, demonstrates that you understand what’s happening.
When should you apply these strategies? Of course, if there’s a fire blazing in the hallway, by all means get the extinguisher and put it out. However, learning that the date was left off the VIP invitation to the big seminar lends itself to at least a short discussion.
We’re halfway through our list of a Dozen Dirty Behaviors that cause problems at work with #6; giving vauge instructions.
What do you think your boss means when she gives you an assignment and then adds, “When you get to it” as part of the instructions? Does she mean to provide the final product by 3:30? Maybe she wants it by Wednesday at noon? Or, do you interpret her vagueness to mean never because you have other work to do? Conversely, if she says, “Make this is a priority” do you drop everything and work on the new task until it’s finished–even if you miss other deadlines?
Ambiguity about what’s needed, by when, and by whom is a common frustration in the workplace (it’s also a frustration at home but that’s another subject!). If you work with someone who too often uses hazy, vague language or skims over the details, don’t be afraid to ask questions to bring things out of the fog. Sometimes it’s helpful to put the questions in the form of a statement like, “This is a priority, so I’m going to drop the other projects until Thursday noon when this is due.” When you do that you not only create clarity around the instruction but you also demonstrate for the other person how to give clear, precise instructions that leave little for misinterpretation.
Interpreting what someone wants can be as confusing as trying to interpret why they don’t just spell it out from the start. Sometimes people leave out details because they’re busy or they think you already know the answer—and in today’s workplace that’s understandable. Sometimes we leave out details because we’re concerned others will be upset or react poorly. Whatever the reason, if you experience a coworker who is hesitant to give you all the information you need, you may have to ask pointed questions to help them tighten up their request. Ask questions like, “Do you need this by 5:00? By tomorrow morning at 7:00? What’s your preference?” and so on until you’ve narrowed the field of potential options and have an agreement. It may take a little practice and a few extra minutes getting all the details but it certainly beats an awkward situation in which one of you is trying to read between the lines and the other is hoping everything will just work out.
When it comes to how you deliver expectations practice being clear each and every time. Say things like, “I would like you to complete an outline for the report and email it to me by 6:00 p.m. today. I’ll read it over tonight and let you know what I think right after my morning meeting with Joe tomorrow.” A statement like that leaves very little room for misunderstanding. It also gives the other person the opportunity to negotiate something else so he doesn’t let you down when he doesn’t provide exactly what you needed.