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Podcast Length Icon 44:46 12 May 2020

How to learn from conflict?

Liz helps us understand why conflict happens in remote teams, and the best way managers can approach it. Tune in as we also touch upon self-management and emotional intelligence.

On this episode of the WorkLife HUB podcast, we discuss how leaders can create a productive business culture, communications in business (including what goes wrong, and how to make it right), how to facilitate better teamwork among employees, including what to do when a remote team is unable to work well together. What follows are snippets from our conversation with Liz - edited for length and clarity - make sure you listen to the entire conversation for great insight! To get familiar with the work of Liz please visit her website here.

Agnes Uhereczky: Thank you so much, Liz, for coming on the podcast. I am very thrilled and honoured to have this conversation with you because I believe that we are going to be drilling down into some of the issues that can be very helpful and insightful for people today, especially now, in the fall of 2020 and going forward. We see from surveys that during the COVID-19 pandemic more people needed to start working from home than before. We also know from these surveys that many of those who experienced working from home would prefer to have this option provided for them, in the form of part-time remote work, even after the pandemic. What is your opinion? What is behind this trend? Is it because people, when they are working from home, are not confronted with office politics, and they are not around some unpleasant people?

Liz Kislik: I am sure that's true, Agnes. What I think is that surveys aggregate too much information and it would be helpful if we knew at a final level of the tail what people were thinking. Because I'll tell you what I see in my practice and talking to others. I think that everything you raised is true and it's accurate, but it is incomplete. People now have been working at home long enough so that their routines have become more comfortable. The things that bothered them at the beginning, that their equipment wasn't exactly good and the chair wasn't comfortable and they hadn't sorted out yet how to share living spaces, workspaces, and all those complications when everybody's stress was high. But they are now routines. It's true - depending on what kind of places they work - that there is not much free food or certain other conveniences, but if they have pets at home they are comfortable with their pets. Also, they can take care of their household things while they are working in the time and space that they used to use for chatting with colleagues and being in the breakrooms.

So, most of the surveys do show that there is generally higher productivity now with people working at home. I have some concerns about whether people are working too much because some are. I think your point about the fact that “we don't have to be near to the difficult people” is true, and I am sure that it is a relief. It is equally a relief not to have to commute, but I also think that there is some value just in the fact that for people who are not dealing with school-aged children and that's a crucial distinction. There is less interruption potentially, but this depends on where you are living, and that is such a common complaint about our typical workplaces. In addition to the flexibility I mentioned, there are some ways in which I believe they have more autonomy at home, more control over their workspace than they had in the workplace.

Most of us like having more control, and autonomy.

What it doesn't take into account though is the level of loneliness, the inability to run into your colleagues serendipitously and share exciting thoughts. Now we have to be much more scheduled to have a conversation. So, I think that there are a lot of pros and cons.

Agnes Uhereczky: One of your specialities is conflict, and solving conflicts in teams which I find extremely interesting. You also have an excellent TED Talk about it. We know very well that conflict can hamper productivity, teamwork and belonging, and have devastating mental health effects also on people. What if there is an underlying conflict between the members of a team who are working remotely? Can this go undetected under the radar of managers? How can managers solve this problem? I think that there is a different character to conflict when you are remote, is it true?

Liz Kislik: Yes, you are right. The things we are seeing we might have thought of it as withdrawal from the old workplace when we were all together. Now, it's much easier than it was to let the conflict be separate from you because you are at home. You can shut that off and go away from it. Because, as I said, when we have to discuss things we have to schedule more to be with each other. Some people just avoid that and therefore avoid the feelings of being in the conflict.

Your question about how managers can tell if people conflict is a good one, and an important one because the majority of us conflict-averse. Most managers don't want to know if there is a conflict, they rather not have to deal with it. I am sure you have seen that. One of the ways many managers deal with conflict generally is by telling the participants that they have to go away and work it out themselves. Often the manager does not take an active role in diagnosing and analysing what's going on. That is a shame because if you have people in conflict sending them away just to have the conflict is very unlikely to change the outcome. Whoever has more power or clout, or, is more skilful at managing the conflict is likely to come out on top. The dynamic won't change if the manager doesn't get involved. So, now it is easy for the manager to avoid it altogether which is a problem, and it takes a kind of courage and determination both from the manager and anyone who wants to resolve the conflict to work on it now because there are more barriers to being together.

So, things to look for if you are the manager and you have a concern. The first thing to look into is whether the work progressing because if the work itself is not moving forward, you have to look for the reasons that that's so. Are there meetings before the meetings to talk about how we are going to handle this person to complain about that person? Or, are there meetings after the real meeting? Are there meetings to vent and complain about what happened at the meeting? In the old workplaces, people drove to work, sometimes you would see those meetings in the parking lot. If there are these get-togethers that's one tip-off. But the other thing is when you have video meetings, are there people who don't participate because in some ways it is easier to avoid participation on video when it was when you were sitting in the actual conference room. If you see that somebody is withdrawn who used to be an active participant, that's something to check on. Is there any kind of shutting somebody down? For example, if somebody makes a blanket statement such as: “Oh I don't think we should talk about that”, or, “That is not the kind of thing that is important”. If somebody is making those kinds of statements, if the manager is making those kinds of statements, they shut people down and send the conflict underground. Or, any kind of passive-aggressiveness because all of these things affect the work, so people say “Oh, yes” in the video conference and you don't see the progress afterwards. Or you don't see the collaboration afterwards, they are the same kinds of signals, or clues, you would have gotten in person you just have to look for them more carefully.

Agnes Uhereczky: I believe that solutions to all manners of challenges and problems are always on the other side of a very uncomfortable conversation. We have to learn how to have these sensitive uncomfortable conversations to push growth in the organisation, help managers grow, or to help yourself to understand. Yet we are so unskilled. What would be your one or two advice for creating opportunities for having these conversations? What do you think?

Liz Kislik: Of course you are right about the discomfort. I think certainly in the beginning when you haven't done this often I would worry about trying to create opportunities which sound to me that you really have to struggle and therefore what you might say might be seen almost incongruent with everybody's expectations. You don't have to look for opportunities, they are all around us. Here is what I would approach this. I think if you start by looking for opportunities where if you were in the other person's shoes you wish that someone would help you. You wish that someone would say something to you. That would help reassure you that it's not a mistake to speak. That's the first issue, to decide: should I speak? And you know you are taking a risk. We are so afraid of looking stupid, and we are equally afraid of somehow hurting the other person.

So checking to see if it would be helpful for me if somebody told me is certainly one consideration. If the answer is YES, then, maybe, I even have a moral obligation to say something. If you need to say something how would you say it? You can use the same construct I gave you before: “I have been noticing that when you open the meeting this way, here are the things that happen, have you noticed that too”. If the answer is: “Yes, I noticed that”, then you can reply with “Well I have been wondering if you think we could start this other thing, maybe it would work better. What do you think”.

So, it is not telling somebody they are wrong, it is not telling somebody you know the best way, it is sharing your observations and concerns, and asking for them to participate in thinking about it.

That's much less challenging than telling somebody that they have stupidly done something, and they never should do it again. So, that's important. Self-management is really important because you want to be able to say these things calmly, in a thoughtful way, and even way. You want to avoid that sound, which I am certain you know when somebody's voice is up in their throat and you know that they are having trouble swallowing. You don't want to be in that position. So, firmly grounding yourself, having both of your feet on the floor flat, having your hands on the desktop, having a couple of long exhalations before you speak, these are all things that calm the body, so the other person's body doesn't hear that you are frightened. That's remarkably helpful. If you are calm, they are much more likely to stay calm. And the other thing is to accept whatever they say as their true expression of what they think, and if you don't like it instead of reacting with anger or upset just say to yourself: “Oh, that's so interesting”. Because then you can stay neutral and process it much better. Think of it as running a whole bunch of experiments and seeing which ones work and continue doing more of that.