Reduce the Conflict and Drama
Here are some things I bet you don’t want at work:
Despite what we want, many of us find ourselves working in environments full of conflict and mistrust. What do we do? It’s not always easy to just quit and find a new job. That’s always an option, but what if we end up in another place just like it?
Anna Maravelas is the president of Thera Rising International. She has helped resolve hundreds of workplace conflicts and worked with thousands in difficult situations. Her new book, Creating a Drama-Free Workplace, grabbed my attention so I reached out to talk to her about her experience and research.
The Rise of Anxiety
Why is positivity diminishing and hostility, stress, and depression increasing?
Emotional safety is job one in communication and relationships. While we are constantly communicating electronically, real connection, the kind that alleviates loneliness and builds a network of emotional safety and collaboration requires face-to-face experiences.
Barbara Fredrickson (Love 2.0) and other researchers have discovered that when we connect our bodies go into synch and match each other’s biochemicals and brain waves. In order to establish this level of resonance we need to see each other faces and be able to hear each other’s voices.
Psychologist Paul Ekman (University of California) has found dozens of facial muscles that don’t move unless we actually experience the emotion. For instance, if I am feigning happiness that you received the promotion and I had not, you would discern my insincerity via facial inconsistencies with my purported emotions.
When we over-rely on electronic communication such as email, we are unable to discern sincerity and hence we are uncertain of the other person’s motives. We are reluctant to trust, and without trust we cannot connect. Once we understand this, we can create the conditions that allow members of our organizations to bond.
In doing research for “Creating a Drama-Free Workplace” there were several statistics that shook me.
- World-wide eco-anxiety. In a 2016 poll 54% of respondents in 40 nations considered climate change is a very serious problem (Pew Research).
- 68% of Americans felt “anxious” or “extremely anxious” about keeping their families safe (The American Psychiatric Association, 2018)
- 47% of Americans report feeling alone or left out (Cigna US Loneliness Index, 2018)
- 40% of American families would be unable to meet an unexpected $400 expense (P. Alston, the UN Study)
- 29% of Americans believe that armed rebellion might be necessary in the near future to protect their liberties from government intrusion (Cassino, Jenkins, 2013)
- 3% of those polled (57 million individuals at the time of the study) admitted to intentionally ramming another vehicle (AAA 2014)
What are some of the effects this is having on individuals and workplaces?
Workplaces are buffered from some societal trends, but they are not immune. As a commissioner in state government said to me recently, “Relationships aren’t what they used to be.”
As we experience less face-to-face time, our skill levels drop. We’re not as agile at smoothing over awkward moments, repairing a rift in relationships, expressing genuine gratitude and acknowledging contribution. When we feel clumsy, we shy away from direct experience. It becomes a downward spiral leading to more isolation and closed groups of loyalists.
I worked with an executive team that had been unable to finish a meeting–individuals were so angry they kept getting up and walking out of the room–for over a year. Negative energy had sucked all the air out of their relationships. There had been a total void of acknowledgment and expressed appreciation for each other’s contributions. Their exchanges focused consistently on shortfalls and second-guessing each other’s decisions and motives.
When we changed the norm and they began to express the positive beliefs they had for each other, the entire culture of the team shifted. It literally gave them the energy and confidence to focus on the complex task of running their organization. Shifting how they communicated broke an emotional log jam that had prevented collaboration.
We also took a long, hard look at their compensation. Their bonuses were based on departmental goals, and they had been exploiting the criteria for maximum personal gain at the expense of other departments. The team was willing to acknowledge how divisive this form of compensation had become, and they agreed to switch from department metrics to one based on year-end profitability. Within an hour of that commitment they were making decisions based on what was good for their company.
This anecdote is a good example of an old Chinese parable, “There are two dogs inside of every person. The one that dominates is the one that is fed.”
You spend some time talking about connectedness and how it’s nature’s antidote to stress. Tell us a little about that.
The research is startling. For instance, we’ve known for years that hospital patients who are visited by family and friends have much better health outcomes than individuals who are isolated. Patients who were connected to loved ones had shorter hospital stays, had less follow-up visits to their doctors and needed less pain medication.
Sociologists call our biggest anxiety the “social evaluation threat.” The SET is a fear that we will be judged unfairly and ostracized by the group. Connectedness is the reassurance that we have allies and support. We don’t have to go it alone. We know that connectedness and the helper’s high produce a cluster of positive emotions including endorphins (a naturally occurring opiate).
What are some of the reasons for workplace tension?
Alongside isolation and performance measures that aren’t in alignment with other departments, “drama-venting” is the one behavior I would like to scourge from the planet.
Workplaces tolerate what we call “drama-venting.” They encourage it and sanctify it. But it’s nothing more than a polished-up version of throwing colleagues under the bus.
I understand why individuals drama-vent because I too was educated in the era that believed venting was useful. However, more recent research indicates that venting actually makes us more aggressive, not less.
Through my work I’ve learned that drama-venting is the number one driver of mistrust. It spreads, reaches the “target,” destroys relationships, creates adversarial factions, and triggers equally mean-spirited and distorted push back.
When we seek out a listener and partner in crime, drama-venting consists of three dynamics.
- The conversation is rich with name-calling and focuses on an individual’s (or a department’s) “personality” or character such as, “Joe is a control freak.” “Everyone in sales is self-centered.”
- I omit my part in the problem and inflame the impact and importance of the other party’s behavior. “They always…” or “They never…”
- I subtly recruit you to join my faction with language such as, “Do you have problems with sales, too?” Or, “We all agree, everyone is operations is ancient and smells like moth balls.”
In our seminars, attendees brainstorm examples of drama-venting. It is hilarious. And also incredibly sad as we contemplate the ubiquity of this behavior. Organizations take a huge step toward building cross-functional trust when they address and eliminate drama-venting.
Attendees both agree with what I am saying and hate it until we articulate the difference between drama-venting and problem solving. At times it is useful to process our experiences with other individuals, use others as a sounding board and ask for their ideas. However, when I ask someone to help me problem solve it’s a dramatically different conversation.
- I curtail my self-righteous indignation and take responsibility for my part in the event.
- Instead of name-calling I look at situational pressures and constraints that led to the current situation. If I focus on Martha’s personality as the source of a problem, I feel hopeless. My body starts to panic. However, if I say, Martha talked over me in a meeting because she lacked skill or insight, the problem becomes more manageable.
- I am solution-focused. I ask the listener to help me identify a plan that will address the problem and preserve the relationship.
Employees and leaders are desperate for kindness and camaraderie. When we work on changing group norms, the speed of the turnaround is fantastic. I’ll admit, when an organization commits to working on these issues at the onset, there is a lot of suppressed groaning. That reaction is based on a lot of failed previous attempts. But once we begin and people see that we bring skill and credibility to the table, they jump in. Folks show up for individual and group work, and everyone contributes.
Individuals are consistently amazed that they’re not alone in wanting a positive, respectful climate. Previously everyone felt alone in their despair that things couldn’t change. The desire for connection (and the effectiveness it triggers) is powerful and ancient.
With this tension on the rise, would you share a strategy or two for defusing situations, calming others down a bit?
We use the acronym EASE when responding to frustration and flooding (the biofeedback word for anger). The first two steps allow you to bond with the other person and help them regain control of their emotions. Otherwise employees don’t have the capacity to problem solve. Again, connecting is calming to our bodies.
First, be empathic to the frustration. We can do this without agreeing. Imagine Jose, an officer and direct report, comes into your office to vent. Listen carefully to the source of the frustration and paraphrase it. If you can accurately restate his frustration Jose won’t feel the need to exaggerate or reiterate his concerns. For instance we can say something similar to, “The Mayor’s decision to delay upgrading our bullet-proof vests makes you feel vulnerable and abandoned by leadership.”
Second, express appreciation for his concerns, his commitment, and his desire to make things right. Individuals drop their hostility in a heartbeat in order to hear genuine words of appreciation. “Jose, you are a committed officer. I count on your skill and professionalism and your willingness to put yourself on the line.”
Search for a reason
Jose is flooded because he is drama-venting and blaming his frustration (and most likely hurt) on another person and group. Help him switch from personality-based blame to curiosity about the reasons behind the Mayor’s decision. “Perhaps the Mayor doesn’t understand how deadly ballistics have become.”
What’s the next step? Is it a conversation, research on best practices, documenting and defining the problem? “Let’s pull some data on ballistics and ask to meet with him.”
The big temptation for leaders in these situations is to try and bond with employees by demonizing the decision maker. “There decisions are all political. The Chief only does what makes him look good.” Although in the moment this appears to appease the officer, it destroys pride in work. As Jose walks back to his squad car he is thinking, “Our leadership is corrupt. I’m a chump for caring. I think I’ll call in sick tomorrow.”
I really encourage leaders to slow down and connect via steps one and two before moving to solutions. It is a perfect opportunity to affirm your employee and coach them toward a constructive solution.
Pride in work is an amazing but fragile gift. Every day I see leaders unintentionally destroy it by drama-venting about another person or group. I’ve helped several leaders break this habit and they are consistently amazed to learn how much their employees hated it but said nothing. Employees are loathe to do anything but play along because their number one goal is to avoid becoming the next target.
Part of your research is on reciprocity, which is not usually noticed, but you say is the “most reliable predictor of behavior.” Knowing this, what can we do to positively impact our environment and those around us?
There are three kinds of reciprocity: negative (tit for tat, an eye for an eye) positive (it’s my turn to pay) and indifference (not making eye contact or greeting other employees).
Psychologist John Gottman found that when we open the dialogue, the other party reciprocates (mirrors our behavior) 96% of the time. Contempt will trigger contempt, but the opposite is also true. Warmth and kindness are equally reliable. We are the center of our universe!
An architect told me about a meeting she was facilitating at their office with an outside firm and the room was full of tension. Unexpectedly, a partner in her firm dropped it, warmly shook hands, praised a project the other company had just completed and said, “We’ve got great people on this team. I can’t wait to see your initial drawings!” She said the chill in the air dissipated and after the partner left, they quickly reached several agreements that had been roadblocks just minutes before.
Develop a Positive Culture
In what ways can leaders develop a positive culture based on positivity and mutual trust while still holding people accountable and achieving results?
Thank God it’s not either or. It’s yes and yes. Positive energy feeds on itself and grows. Speaking highly of another leader, or the board, or the union president, or a vendor, or regulatory body builds pride in work and a sense of safety.
I watched one of the most gifted leaders I’ve ever come across hold one of his employees accountable with a brilliant combination of warmth and assertiveness. The CEO asked me to coach a woman on his executive team who was a genius at managing up but perceived as a bully by everyone else in the organization.
“Shelly” and I made a list of cross-functional individuals for me to interview about both her strengths and her growth areas, and she helped me create the questions. I conducted individual, face-to-face interviews, combined their feedback, removed all the identifiers and then we turned her feedback into themes and goals. She shared her goals with her feedback team, and we identified how the group could help her change some of her destructive habits. She humbly asked for their assistance in making this change and asked them to hold her accountable.
Then we circled back to the CEO and he spoke to her with the perfect combination of assertiveness, “Shelly, I need for you to change this behavior. If I hear one more complaint about your bullying behavior I will move to termination” and warmth, “I know you can do this, you are a remarkable woman.” It was so moving; I was almost in tears.
I stayed in touch with the CEO for two years to see if Shelly succeeded and she did! The combination of direct feedback that she could not dismiss, achievable goals, the support of her peers, warmth and high expectations created a life-changing experience for her.
When we ask people to change, or step up, and we do it with cold contempt, they become defensive and dig in. If we do it from a place of emotional neutrality, we come across as callous and disengaged. However, when we express high standards with warmth, most individuals will pick up the challenge and run with it.
Years ago, I latched onto the power of warmth when I watched a farmer correct his young son, Timmy, for disobeying him while they were working in the field near dangerous equipment. Bob put Timmy on his lap and wrapped his arm around his shoulder. He created an absolute bubble of safety and said, “Timmy, what did daddy tell you to do?” Timmy was so open to his father in that moment that he was able to completely absorb his message.
Human beings are burdened with the negativity bias of the brain–a predisposition toward fearing the worst. The NBB is a remnant from hunting and gathering days when sudden death was a constant threat.
Consequently, we humans are fragile and insecure almost without exception. Individuals who come across as arrogant and callous are usually the most insecure. Thus, we are more able to respond to corrective feedback when it is delivered with kindness and an invitation to grow.
For more information, see Creating a Drama-Free Workplace.
Photo credit: JESHOOTS.COM