We are all good at avoiding conflict. It’s something we’ve been taught to do by the people around us and our institutions ever since we were very young. Once you hit 2nd grade you started to become very aware of whether you’re in conflict with others. You start noticing how you’re different than other people. You start noticing that different equals bad. Different equals ostracized. The kids in your class make fun of different. To use a phrase from one of my favorite thought leaders, Brene Brown, they make you feel like you don’t have a “sense of love an belonging.” We need that sense of love and belonging as people, or we never feel complete. Having a group of people to belong to has been hard wired into our DNA by years of evolution. Back in the early days of humanity, someone without a group they belong to was vulnerable and more likely to have their genes removed from the pool.
We learn at an early age we need to blend in and be more like everyone else if we want to be included. If we don’t want to be alone or shunned, we need to be agreeable. We spend most of our young and adolescent life becoming extremely good at blending in. The common high school comment, “Is she/he mad at me,” summarizes this well. If we did something to anger our friend, we want to know what so we don’t do it again. At that stage in our lives, we want everyone to like us . Additionally, we can’t ask our friend if they are indeed angry with us because that would mean we might create very direct confrontation in the process, an even riskier prospect. If we confronted our friend directly they might unleash their anger on us and maybe we might not be friends anymore after. Where would we sit at lunch?! Nobody wants to be Steven Glandsberg.
To thrive as adults, I’ve noticed we need to unlearning much of what was coded into us while we were young. For me to be successful in my world, I need to be different, I need to stand out, I need to attract attention. I need to be selected out at work for doing things differently, for getting better results, for challenging the status quo. You can probably guess I work in a startup environment from those statements alone. Not everyone’s work environment is like this but that doesn’t mean standing out and doing things differently isn’t a path for success where you are. You might still be operating in “blend in” mode when you go to work, do just what you need to do, and try not to piss anyone off so you’ll still have a job tomorrow. Obviously the way you operate is dependent on the culture in which you are working, but regardless of where you work I think it’s time we all stop acting like we’re still in high school. We can all do better for ourselves and for our fellow coworkers. We can stop avoiding the conflicts that arise between each other and start addressing them in a more mature, direct, and constructive way.
If you are walking around on egg shells at work because your boss is a dictator, there is a way for you to address the situation and make it better for you and everyone else that works with them. If you’ve got a coworker that drives you up the walls, there is a way to address the situation so you’re both happier working together. If there are two people in your office that are constantly at each other’s throats and making the work situation a hostile environment for everyone to work in, there is a way to solve that problem too. You also don’t have to be the CEO or their direct manager to solve it. All it takes is a plan, some courage, and the belief that you can be constructive. It’s likely that you’ll even gain the benefit of being well liked and respected by the person or persons you’re addressing and stand out for your care and courage.
It’s time to stop avoiding the conflict in our workplaces and start growing from addressing the conflicts we have. In every human organization I’ve been a part of, be it student organizations in college, non-profits, or fast pace startups; where there is conflict, there is growth. Often times to get to the next level and work better as a team there needs to be conflict to advance. If you’re not familiar with Bruce Tuckman‘s research on team formation you’ve probably heard the terminology he made popular in his famous paper Development Sequence in Small Groups; forming, storming, norming, and preforming. Storming in a team is addressing the conflict between team members and coming out strong on the other side.
I want to give you the tools and confidence you need to turn the conflict that you experience in your workplace into a growth opportunity. You don’t have to go to work dreading each day because of the person you might be thinking about right now. I’ve taught many people how to do this in many different organizations and I know I can help you learn how to do it too. You’ll enjoy your life so much more and even find ways of applying these lessons outside the office. The best part will be the gratitude and thanks you receive from your coworkers for dealing with these situations proactively. These conflicts in our workplaces don’t just make us miserable, they make so many others around us miserable as well. They steal precious productivity from everyone and slow our progress down. The thanks you’ll receive from your coworkers will be overwhelming if you chose to do this and you’ll know it’s been well worth the time and risks you’ve taken.
I want to hear from you about the situation in your office where there is conflict. Write them in the comments to this post. Feel free to change people’s names in the situations if you’re worried about privacy. For any person that takes the time to tell their story, I promise to take the time to respond and help you find a way to resolve the conflict you or your coworkers are experiencing so you can enjoy your days at work instead of dreading them.