When people disagree, communication stops. That can be disastrous in the workplace. Instead of collaborating, teams get stuck in their own feedback loops. They advocate for their point of view to win or prove a point. Projects are stymied. Ugly feelings surface. In the worst case, colleagues and collaborators can come to despise—and even hate—each other.
I recently attended a workshop led by master facilitator Michael Wilkinson, who presented a great framework for busting through disagreements.
Three things are most often at the root of the most bitter disputes.
The Information Gap
The most common generator of hard feelings in the workplace is that people operate with different sets of information or lack context for their colleagues’ resistance. When a conflict arises, one or more collaborators have to step back and ask questions. Let’s say you are new to the company and you and a coworker are tasked with planning the department spring picnic. You want it catered by your friend, who owns a barbecue restaurant. Your colleague is vehemently opposed and calls your idea stupid. Instead of getting defensive, ask why? Why are they so opposed? The response? There are several colleagues who are vegetarians and would have nothing to eat. They are so frustrated that people never consider their dietary needs. Now that you understand the situation, you can work together to come up with a solution that works for everyone.
The second reason behind many office conflagrations is a misalignment of values. Let’s say the manager wants your team to pitch business to the Acme Company. The team leader hates the idea and says they don’t want to do it. In a meeting, she asks: “Are you guys crazy? Why wouldn’t you want to make more money for the company and get a bigger bonus? Why are you suboptimizing?” Now the team is even more resistant and angry. One person is threatening to quit. Instead of the manager viewing this as a team revolt, she needs to ask a different question: “What is bothering you about this pitch?” The answer is that they are uncomfortable with a firm that was found to have discriminatory business practices. Here is a clash of values: the supervisor is thinking about monetary gain; the team is facing a moral dilemma. Understanding the gap, the team and the manager could then look for a solution that would merge their values, perhaps pitching a company of equal size which operates differently.
Personality and History
Frequently a personality clash, or differing experiences or histories are behind a disagreement. Don’t assume that anytime someone resists, the reason is that he just doesn’t like you. Ask questions. After determining whether there is an information gap or a misalignment of values, consider digging deeper. This isn’t about prying into a person’s private life. By being open, sensitive and respectful of others’ histories, backgrounds, experiences and world views. Consider what is unspoken. Then ask whether all parties can work through the underlying issue and reach a resolution.
The key to managing disagreement? Don’t assume anything. Asking questions in a nonthreatening manner with the desire to truly understand another’s perspective is the bedrock of effective communication. And effective communication can cut through the angst of opposition to lead to positive solutions and exciting opportunity.