Managing conflict at work for women often means navigating anger effectively. Our society has narratives about angry women, some of which we have internalized. What are those narratives? How can we better understand why we are in conflict and what the real issues are? How can you tell if a work conflict is solvable? How can you repair conflict?
Angry Women Scare People
Women who are forceful, demand accountability and set boundaries are often considered angry even if the actual emotion of anger isn’t present. “Angry” women frighten some people, especially “angry” African American women. But women who don’t set boundaries or ask for what they need risk being underpaid, sexually harassed, overworked, stepped on and abused.
What are your narratives around women who are angry? Do you come from a family or cultural perspective that says conflict is bad, women should be peacemakers, if you stand up for yourself you’ll be alone and unloved? Or do you come from a family that considers arguments to be good exercise and do you wade in? Can you have conflict and disagreement without anger? Or do you need to be mad to set boundaries? Understanding your narratives around anger is a good start.
Be professional, be courteous, be polite, be fair. But understand that anger, properly channeled, is a force for good, a signal that your boundaries are being violated. Anger can provide a surge of energy to get you the hell out of a bad situation. It can give you power. Our culture has a deep discomfort with women who have power, so of course there is going to be resistance.
Understand your own red zones and hot spots.
When we have a conflict, we’re rarely fighting about what we think we’re fighting about. Almost every conflict comes down to someone thinking they are going to lose something; financial security, esteem, control, influence. Think of these as red zones. When they are at play, the energy and conflict is going to escalate.
For many of us, our identities are built around our jobs. It’s how we achieve or maintain financial security. It’s how we sustain our sense of self-confidence and competence. Fear that we will be seen as not enough, that we will fail or even lose our jobs, is another red zone. Conflicts rooted in red zones require the emotional equivalent of oven mitts; skills and perspectives built for work situations that are often fraught with these deeper identity issues.
Issues of competence, identity and fear are almost always red zones for everyone. But each of us has a few of our own special hot spots, those specific issues that make us crazy and cause us to have a disproportionate reaction. I know people who cannot stand to be lied to, even a small white lie. Others who become enraged if they think they are being ignored or discounted. Still others who will get full on ballistic if someone talks about them behind their back. Of course, no one likes being on the receiving end of those kinds of behavior, but which are the ones that send you into an extreme reaction that we know is disproportionate? Those are your personal hot spots.
Remember, what the other person in a conflict is doing makes sense to them, it serves them in some way. Until you understand why it makes sense to them, you can’t really address the conflict. I’ve worked with people who make choices that make no sense to me, that are contrary to the stated goals of the project or team, even work against their own careers, and yet, there they go, being stupid. Pointing out, however tactfully, that they are being stupid doesn’t get me very far. Trying to understand what needs they are trying to meet, why this makes sense to them, at least gives me a place to start.
So ask questions. Lots of questions. Conflict resolution is often about negotiation – you need to understand what is most important to the other person and to you to effectively craft a compromise. Saying back to someone what they need can work magic. “What I’m hearing you say is that you’re concerned about…” The more you can put yourself in the other person’s shoes, the better.
When to walk away
Sometimes, conflict resolution doesn’t work, or the other person is a genuine bad actor. In these cases you may need to get help from leadership or HR. Clearly if there is any sexual harassment, or harassment connected to race, gender, sexuality, religion, any verbal abuse get HR involved or get legal help. But if the conflict doesn’t fall into this category it’s good to try repair.
When to try repair
Advertising is a high pressure industry, lacking job security, filled with creative, strong willed independent people. There is going to be conflict. Every relationship will have ruptures. And for most ruptures there is the possibility of repair. Effective repair can build trust and cohesion. To understand if the relationship can be repaired, ask your self these things:
- Do I think this person has the best interests of the project/company/client in mind? However much I disagree with their choices, can I see why they might be making them? Can I assume best intention?
- Is there something else going on for them? Illness, family issues, or fear can cause people to regress and become less skillful at work. Is there a reason this person might be under stress? Again, the reasons don’t have to make sense to me, but if I can see how they are impacting them it can give me more compassion.
- Do I have to work with this person? Assuming there is no extreme bad behavior, if our job depends on us resolving a conflict with another, then we sometimes need to suck it up and figure out how to repair, even if it’s not what we want to do.
The Repair Toolkit
- Own your part. If you have been acting from a place of fear, or control, or just simply not accepting the other person as who they are, then you have a part. Very few conflicts are completely one-sided. Never underestimate the value of a good apology. Even if the other person has a part that is way worse than what I think I’ve done, if I can admit what I have done wrong, it is a good start to rebuilding.
- Don’t gossip. If you’re in conflict with someone at work, it’s hard not to share that with other people at work. But repair will go more smoothly if you don’t gossip or bring other people into the conflict.
- Be kind. You don’t have to be fake, but small acts of kindness can go a long way. Look at the person when you are in a meeting together, ask their input.
- Check in. We all know when there is conflict in a relationship at work. It’s not a secret. So check in – acknowledge that there have been problems and ask what you can do to work together more effectively. Keep the lines of communication open.
- Watch yourself. If your temper flares, take a break. Go to the bathroom, walk around the block. A simple phrase to employ is “this seems to be getting heated, why don’t we take a break and come back to this later.” Stay focused on what is best for the team, the project, the end goal.
The key to repair is understanding to the best of your ability why people do what they do, and seeing the deepest needs and fears that are the hidden third rail in ourselves and the people around us. But if repair is not possible, if resolution isn’t available, we must still protect ourselves and set boundaries.