Is it just me or do some managers have a special knack for looking the other way when it comes to bad behavior and conflict on the job? Managing people isn’t easy for a whole host of reasons but when we as employees bring our little red wagons to work chock full of “issues” from the past and don’t play well with others it can be overwhelming for some bosses. Of course it’s not fair when we dump the wagon’s contents at a manager’s feet and expect him to fix everything, but that shouldn’t give those who supervise us a free pass to ignore what’s right in front of them. So why do they do it? One answer that may come to mind is that they simply have no business managing people. But in reality, the truth is probably closer to one of these four possible motives:
1. Can’t find starting line
“I just don’t know where to start!” Straightening out personnel problems in the office is much like taking a handful of chains and lockets that have been lost in the bottom of the jewelry box and trying to figure out which knot goes with which chain. It’s easier to toss them back in and move on. The same is true when managers can see that something should be done, but feel overwhelmed with the complicated details. Sorting through who said what and who did what to whom and why they did it when they did it takes time. Add to that the expectation that he needs to make a wise, Solomon-like decision and even the strongest leader will want to run the other way.
Rather than spinning his wheels it’s better for him to gather information one piece at a time. It doesn’t really matter where he starts just as long as he sets off with an open mind and listens to what his employees tell him–which includes reading between the lines. Deciphering that “always” and “never” may not really mean every single time or that an employee’s seething over a co-worker’s corner office is probably more about feeling excluded than it is about seniority issues is key to figuring things out. Asking open-ended questions is an effective method to gain understanding about what motivates employees. It’s also a great way to sift through convoluted issues involving people, systems, and policies.
2. Doesn’t want to look bad
Some managers think that if they keep quiet about the problems on their team no one will be the wiser. That’s like putting green paint on a dying plant and asking colleagues to believe its thriving. You might call that spineless or wimpy but what’s driving him to ignore a conflict is his fear that the situation will reflect poorly on him and his management skills. What he may not realize is that a supervisor in denial’s reputation suffers because others, especially those looking for something to criticize, can clearly see what he thinks he’s hiding and they can also see his attempts to cover things up. I once had a manager who sat our department down and said, “What happens with this team stays within this team; we tell no one.” I’m not sure who he thought he was kidding, but it certainly couldn’t have been any of us nor was it any of his peers. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, in the office could see our dysfunction and he was let go shortly after his announcement.
Much like our support for the celebrity or politician who has fallen from grace, we love contrition and often find it difficult to walk away from someone who admits his shortcomings. Helping a colleague when he’s down makes us feel better about ourselves and helping out a struggling boss has the potential in the long-run to benefit our own careers. Does that mean we should help our manager hide conflicts? No. What it means we should find a private and confidential moment in which to let him know there’s no shame in getting the right help for the right problem and, in fact, it’s a smart move. Find a way to let him know that putting a plan together to resolve conflicts actually paints him as a leader, a problem-solver, and a manager who has the capacity to fix just about anything. Who wouldn’t want that reputation?
3. Has “real work” to do
Concentrating too much on negative emotions during a conflict can make your boss feel like a babysitter and respond with a stern, “You two just have to work it out!” When faced with the pressures of balancing an impossible budget or overseeing every detail of a large project, your manager may feel that any personnel squabbles are secondary to his success and what he should put his energies toward is the important work his boss expects him to get done. Talking about how someone hurt your feelings will only make him feel like a psychiatrist, a parent, or an unwilling confidante–all of which he sees as being outside the scope of his responsibility to the bottom line.
What he may not understand, though, is that managing people well does reflect on the end product. The costs associated with ongoing conflict can be staggering and it would be in his best interest to solve problems before they escalate to the point where valuable employees leave, production screeches to a halt, or customer service suffers. A company’s reputation is an aggregation of its products, people, and its culture. If two organizations provide a community with identical services and one has employees who let their internal strife leak to customers, it’s not unreasonable to think that current or potential clients will choose the one with good conflict management approaches. Describing personal conflicts as events that affect business success may make it easier for a boss to digest. Saying, “I’m concerned about the quality of my reports because I’m having a difficult time getting timely information from Joe” is a more productive way of stating a concern than saying, “Joe’s a jerk and every time I try to talk to him about his numbers he makes me cry.”
4. Can’t see the problem
Remember when you were a kid and someone would say something you didn’t want to hear, so you’d put your fingers in your ears and sing, “La la la” to drown them out? There may be days when you think your boss is doing the grown up version of that song because he really doesn’t seem to get that there’s a problem at all. Truth is, there may be an issue that’s affecting you but for him it’s not an issue because he can’t see it from your perspective. Responses like, “Can’t you tell he’s kidding?” or, “Just get over it” or even, “It’s really not that big of a deal” are typical responses for managers who may not understand the depth to which a co-worker’s actions or words can affect another.
There may be times that no matter how often you try to point out a conflict to your boss he shakes her head in bewilderment. What he may need is for you to find a different way to explain it. Giving him concrete (and unemotional) examples of how specific behaviors affect the job at hand could be something he could relate to. Stating the issue in terms of decreased productivity, fractured communication flows, or simply that the department isn’t reaching it’s potential for greatness (and how well it will reflect on him if it did!) might be just what he’s looking for.
So, what can you do if you’ve tried approaching your boss with what you believe to be viable solutions to a workplace conflict and nothing changes? If you believe you’ve sincerely tried to understand his motives for not acting, looked at it from his perspective, and approached the discussion from a non-emotional standpoint, then turning to HR or an outside conflict resolution professional may be the answer. Both can point you to resources and tools such as conflict coaching and neutral mediators to calm the situation down and improve working relationships. And, if that doesn’t work, you have a choice to either continuing functioning within the confines of the current environment or plan for a graceful exit. If you choose to stay, work to control your own reactions to the conflict and if you choose to exit, as tempting as it might be to shout from the rooftops that you’re thrilled to be leaving this lousy, clueless boss in the dust, choose your words carefully during the exit process so you can move on to greener pastures with your reputation and integrity intact.
Thank you – Shirli Kirschner, Air New Zealand, Gerald Raftesath, Cindy Last - and all of the other committee members and conference planners (Lawyers Engaged in ADR (LEADR) Annual Conference,...By Christina S. Merchant