Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Sabina Nawaz
Not getting along with a colleague at work? You’re not alone. From petty politics, to underhanded power moves, to shirking teammates, the office environment seems like a Petri dish designed to breed conflict. And conflict comes at a high cost: for employees, that cost is wasted time and unhappiness; for organizations, workplace conflicts cost hundreds of billions of dollars.
A study of 5,000 employees in Europe and the Americas found co-workers spend an average of 2.1 hours a week engaged in conflict. This squabbling amounts to $359 billion in lost productivity per year in the U.S. alone.
So what can you do to reclaim your sanity, lower stress and help foster an environment where conflict is less likely to happen in the first place? The answer is to “tell stories” about your colleagues. I don’t mean engage in gossip, make false accusations or otherwise tell negative stories about your co-workers. Actions like these will only increase conflict.
Instead, tell productive stories. How? Use your imagination to test theories of behavior and motivation on your co-workers. If a colleague does something that annoys you, instead of jumping to a singular conclusion about why he acted that way, try coming up with three different possible reasons for his behavior. Often, we tell ourselves one negative story about the person and assume we’re right – we start to regard this story as “the truth.” By looking at situations from multiple perspectives, it’s possible to stop conflict before it occurs.
While jumping to singular conclusions is natural – a quick way to make sense of the world around us – it almost always leads to misunderstandings. The reason humans are so eager to grasp for meaning is that our brains are quite literally being hijacked by our amygdala. The amygdala is that ancient, primitive section of the brain responsible for emotional response and decision-making. If you see a sudden movement in long grass, the amygdala triggers a fear response to prepare your body for flight. Simultaneously, your brain makes a split-second decision that the movement is actually a lion and sends you sprinting to safety. That fight-or-flight response is useful in the Serengeti, but in an office environment, it means your first story is usually defensive and all about you. You automatically interpret what the other person did as a threat.
For example, if your boss glares at you as he passes by in the hall on the day you’re due to discuss a promotion, you’ll likely interpret it as a bad sign. It could be that he just realized he forgot to pick up his dry cleaning, but your amygdala will encourage your brain to jump to the worst possible conclusion. And your negative story could end up sabotaging your talk about the promotion later. If you make up multiple stories about your boss’ actions instead, you could help mitigate that first defensive response. Here’s an example from a recent coaching session with an executive:
Pranav is a CTO in a Fortune 500 company. He and his colleague David, the CFO, had worked together for three years. During the coaching session, Pranav said he was frustrated with David. He believed David was overstepping – pitching ideas that fell within Pranav’s domain – and that he was trying to take credit for Pranav’s ideas and the work he did on a big project. “David just wants to show everyone he’s smarter than me and find a way to push his own agenda,” said Pranav, “maybe David really wants to take control of my group!”
While that was one plausible story, I asked Pranav to think about two alternative explanations for David’s behavior. After some consideration, Pranav admitted David could have been unaware of his work, since Pranav hadn’t discussed progress with the executive team. Or perhaps David was so excited by the topic, he didn’t pause to consider talking with Pranav before acting. As Pranav thought about these new interpretations, his tone of voice changed from strident to reflective. By telling himself different stories, Pranav took charge instead of surrendering to the impulse of his amygdala.
During our next meeting, Pranav reported encouraging progress. He had approached David to ask whether he was aware of Pranav’s previous work on the topic. David apologized, saying he was not. He admitted that he had a tendency to get excited and take action, and that he probably should have come to Pranav first.
So Pranav was right after all, but not about the first story he told himself. In the end, the two men decided to partner to present a proposal that was much stronger than either could have created on his own.
When Pranav practiced telling multiple stories about David, he moved from feeling victimized to feeling empowered. Telling more stories, especially productive ones, not only helps reduce conflict at the office, but also gives you more power over the conflicts that do arise . Here’s why:
• Control: You move from being reactive to being deliberate. Your first story is likely coming from the primitive part of your brain. By pushing yourself to think about two other interpretations, you start to engage the executive functions of your brain in the prefrontal cortex.
• Objectivity: You become less attached to one interpretation as the truth. You start to call into question some of your assumptions. You may be open to other possible interpretations and therefore other solutions.
• Perspective: Telling multiple stories forces you to examine the conflict from a more holistic point of view. Coupled with your new-found objectivity, you’re less likely to assign dramatic or dire reasons to your co-workers’ actions. It’s easier to see how their actions might have nothing to do with you.
• Empathy: By looking closely at another’s motivations, you can’t help but see the challenge through their eyes. You can approach your co-workers with curiosity and look for signs of their own struggles.
• Productive Action: Because you’ve thought through multiple scenarios, you can prepare for the other person’s reaction and offer alternatives. You’re able to stay focused on actually solving the problem, instead of getting caught up in the drama of the story and assigning blame .
The next time you find yourself caught up in a particularly juicy story about a co-worker, spin three separate tales. This way you won’t waste a day every month seething with resentment and missing opportunities. By expanding your stories, you expand your mindset and your productivity. Now that’s a powerful way to approach workplace politics.
Originally posted on Forbes >>
photo credit: jmettraux