Men: Three conflict management strategies to break down stereotypes and improve workplace relationships

Men don’t listen, aren’t in touch with their feelings, want to win (at any cost), abuse their power, are arrogant, are afraid to show weakness, think of nothing but sex, don’t see any gender problem, and so forth.

I know and/or consciously intuit that I’ve been labeled with each of those stereotypes, at one time or another, during my four decades in the workforce. Were they generalizations, misapplied? Said in jest? Personal attacks? Was I deserving? Were they a fair assessment of my behaviour, at the time?

Regardless of my due, from the volume of recent news highlighting workplace transgressions by men, the negative stereotypes have merit, “fair dinkum” (as the Aussies say), “where there’s smoke, there’s fire”…

When workplace relationships suffer, so does the bottom line. The cost of workplace conflict is higher than you think. Calculate it.

With a lens on better communications and relationships, here are three conflict management strategies that help improve the quality of workplace interactions and relationships. While these strategies are applicable to everyone, they may be of special interest to men motivated to break down stereotypes that others have of them.

1. Acknowledge that you are part of the problem

“If you’re not part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution”, says Adam Kahane, in Collaborating with the Enemy: How to work with people you don’t agree with or like or trust. “Unless you can grasp how what you are doing is contributing to the situation, you have no way to change that situation, except from above, by forcing.” Don’t be that guy.

Another way to think of your role in the conflict is like that of an actor, or like a “spectator”, in the kind of play put on by Brazilian theater director Augusto Boal. Boal saw the audience as more than passive. His audiences also participated and influenced the action on stage. “We (audience) see ourselves as part of, and within, the situation – as one of the participants, I am co-creating what is happening.”

If you still insist that “they” are the problem, remember the virtue of humility in collaboration. “Humility is the single greatest and most indispensable attribute of being a team player”, says Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and The Ideal Team Player. Humility is the antidote to arrogance.

2. Value relationships as much as results

How do you measure success? Results? Profits? What about the quality of workplace relationships and interactions? If you value results and profits far in excess of relationships, then you are in the “jackass” category, a term, image, that Lencioni uses, with relish, in his workplace fable/guide, The Ideal Team Player.

If you’re a leader, double down on valuing of relationships as much as results. Culture starts at the top. In The Culture Engine: A Framework for Driving Results, Inspiring Your Employees, and Transforming Your Workplace, Chris Edmonds extols leaders to spend half their time managing for performance, and half their time managing the quality of workplace relationships and interactions; 50-50 leaders.

On the flipside, there are times when it’s better to shift the focus away from relationship, e.g., when the conversation centres on who is to blame than on how to solve the problem.  Task conflicts, e.g., concerning disagreements among team players about the work they are performing, can evolve from the natural differences of ideas and opinions that occur among people. Task conflict, when managed well, can be a good thing, for both performance and relationships.

3. Increase your conflict competency

The majority of relationship conflicts aren’t going anywhere.

Marriage relationship expert John Gotmann’s research shows that “69% of relationship conflict is about perpetual problems. These problems are grounded in the fundamental differences that any two people face. They are either 1) fundamental differences in your personalities that repeatedly create conflict, or 2) fundamental differences in your lifestyle needs.”

Are workplace relationships, especially close working relationships, all that different? I will speculate that, appreciably, they aren’t. In which case, your skills and capacity to work with conflict are your keys to relationship and work success.

Self-awareness is the key to conflict competency. Understanding how you respond to conflict events and hot buttons is the precursor to developing constructive habits and relationships. They enable dialogue to be constructive, to de-escalate the inherent conflict.

With every client I work with, on conflict matters, I seek to help them, or the person(s) in conflict, to become more self-aware.

Of course, I’ve come to appreciate, more and more, the benefit of doing the same, walking the talk. Conversations go better when my first stop is a look in the mirror. There’s no better place to start, if you want to work together. Collaboration begins with you.

Be Original

The opposite of stereotype is original. Be original. Acknowledge your contribution. Value the relationship. Start the change with yourself.

Speak to your better side.

[Ben provides conflict management services for small to medium-sized businesses, nonprofits and local governments. Contact Ben.]

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