Handling Conflicts With Supervisors:
A famous psychologist, Dr. Rollo May, concluded that, at the
beginning of this century in the U.S., identification with nationality,
family, or religion were the main ways people had for valuing
themselves. But in contemporary times, it
primarily rests more narrowly on work.
Therefore, when our job is affected, the normal challenges of
negotiating skillfully are tremendously amplified. In almost
any conflict with a boss there are potential
losses--if not the loss of our career, the loss of a specific
position or just the lack of proper recognition. But in the
psychological background of these potential losses lurks a blow
to our very identity and self-esteem. In such
cases, it is a basic psychological reflex to defend oneself;
so much so, that people neglect the first principles
of communication--acknowledging the other's concerns
and gathering information.
Below is an outline with some
commentary on skills to handle conflict with supervisors in two broad
categories: 1) external communication skills
for interacting with others, 2) internal skills to relax, process
losses, and decide on and articulate the specific details
of your desired outcome.
External Communication Skills
1. Acknowledge, acknowledge,
acknowledge, lead! Acknowledging the other's
criteria, what is most important to them and any
emotional charge they have about that, is the first and
foremost communication skill--before you lead into
your agenda. Throughout the exchange, after every
time the other person speaks, respond initially
with some acknowledgment of their concerns. When
accused or blamed, it is almost a reflex to
immediately explain or defend oneself; so practice
ahead of time to feed back acknowledgment
first, before stating your case. E.g.:
Boss: “You were late again for the meeting”;
Employee: “you're very clear that being on time is a major
priority and I am committed to that. Ten minutes before the
meeting, I got a call from the Johnson account which we've also agreed
is vital. Just to clarify, can we review how you want to
handle a call like that in the future?”.
2. Gather Information:
Ask questions without buying into accusations--after
making acknowledging statements:
“Absolutely, absolutely! Avoiding bad publicity for
the company is a major concern, can you review with me your
understanding of how this happened? By emphasizing “your”,
you establish interest in the boss' interests and, at the same time,
that there's another different and potentially valid view--all without
confrontation Later, you will be better able to defend
yourself or, perhaps, simply to establish in the boss' mind that you
are aware of his/her priorities and are clear
on steps to take in the future.
3. Don't answer
accusatory, demanding questions.
Paradoxically, if you attempt to answer demanding questions
prematurely, the other person won't feel you've heard the intensity of
their concerns; and there is a danger for you of
feeling that you are abandoning your dignity by jumping to someone's
angry tune. With a boss, it may seem necessary to give a
quick answer to a question initially, but even in such circumstances it
is usually possible to insert a question before answering;
this accomplishes several things: a) you aren't immediately
dancing to the boss' tune so you may feel better about yourself and b)
you gain valuable information otherwise clouded by emotion.
4. Suggest alternative
solutions but only after several
acknowledging and reflecting statements have calmed
the person sufficiently. This presupposes, as discussed
elsewhere that you have prepared several specific plans that are
acceptable to you.
5. Plan for
objections & Handle common objections
upfront: Whether with family or the boss, identify
ahead of time repetitive complaints that are most difficult for you not
to react to. Write these out and prepare
three alternative responses for each one--always starting
with some acknowledgment. If you know that some objection
will definitely be raised, address it upfront.
E.g.: “I need to ask for a schedule change. I know
it must be crazy making to change one person's
schedule and have to juggle 10 others, with my proposal the only change
is...”. This establishes empathy for the emotional “problem”
that your boss faces as well as the practical issue.
agreements: Ask directly if the boss will agree to
a specific suggestion: “Will you agree, then, to ....?”.
Consider writing a memo later with a summary of your meeting
and a statement of your version of the agreements.
7. Responding to anger
directed at you by a boss. Again, all of the tools
above may come into play. Acknowledge and ask questions first
before answering accusations. One more advanced technique is
to verbally and non-verbally dissociate yourself from the
“cause” position; that is, remove yourself from the
polarizing dynamic which highly directive anger presupposes.
Anger at you is based on the premise
that you are the cause and the angry person has
been on the receiving end or at the effect of your actions.
Picture yourself sitting across from an angry person who you
react to with rebuttals and irritation. In effect, they say
“you did it” and you say “Oh, no I didn't it”-a virtual ping-pong
match! Now imagine moving physically to the side of their
body or off to the side of where you had been sitting, point down at
the desk where some paper work or policy statement lays, and say, “You
know, that kind of stuff is so upsetting and it really does need to be
addressed.” This maneuver physically removes
you from the “cause” position. It removes the pong from the
ping-pong dynamic, so to speak. Not a substitute for honestly
owning up to failure, but a strategy to defuse blame or a style of
blame that isn't appropriate.
Internal Skills For Conflicts
people only state what they don't want. That leaves
the responsibility, the work, and the power to the supervisor
to dream up the solution. First, you must decide
what you want as a solution in specific
“sensory-based” detail. Sensory-based detail
includes what it will look like, sound
like, and/or feel like. Here's a simple
example: Instead of simply recognizing that you want to cut back an
intense work schedule, outline three alternative schedules with
specific starting and quitting times and a proposed date to begin the
new schedule. The principle is the same in more complex matters.
Consider someone who feels they have unfairly received a
reprimand and a change in job duties from an immediate supervisor.
Going into a meeting with that supervisor's boss, it is
important to establish for yourself what outcome(s) you want: i.e.:
I want the boss to review the specific sequence of
events with me by examining some company documents
(time cards, logs for machine use, etc.) and follow my step
by step analysis of who had the responsibility.
Further, I want my former responsibilities back and
to maintain a good working atmosphere with my supervisor. Those are the
goals, achieving them is the less direct process of negotiating and
communicating outlined on these pages.
Stop polarizing dynamics from crystallizing.
But how to relax when your job feels threatened? In
the face of any threat, it is a reflex to step back or lean away as if
to keep out of harm's way. This is fine when in physical danger, but
otherwise it feeds the “blame game” of an angry person or may keep you
in the “one down” position. As an alternative try this
experiment--lean forward; while staying completely relaxed,
use the verbal techniques above; or lean forward and position
your body alongside of the boss, as if you're on the same
team. This establishes concern and discourages polarizing
dynamics from forming.
3. The willingness to
have a loss and to grieve if necessary
is the secret weapon of assertiveness. Many people readily boast what
they'll tell the boss, but then roll over easily from fear of losing
their job. In other words, they've established the ideas
of what they want, but need to face the emotional reality of
their own bottom line-at what point will they agree to stay
and/or walk away. Feel into the emotions
of accepting the losses that may come with the different possible
scenarios resulting from the meeting. Unless you know your
bottom line, cognitively and emotionally, you are
more likely to be left flapping in the wind of the situation.
4. Outline a
negotiating strategy: Articulate your priorities to
yourself and consider what you are willing to give to get what you
want. See the section on Setting Agreements And Negotiating
for further elaboration.