Closing the Floodgates
How to reduce conflict at work
By Nancy Weingartner
Americans are getting angrier. Road-rage incidents have increased 51 percent in the last decade; hate Web sites are up 300 percent in the same amount of time; and shock-jock radio shows are up 1000 percent from 20 years ago, according to experts.
“We experience 30 heart hassles and mini-crises a day,” said Anna Maravelas, author of “How to Reduce Workplace Conflict and Stress.” This leads not only to heart disease, but a stressful, disconnected workplace.
Maravelas, who spoke to the Minneapolis Women’s Franchise Network event recently, said it’s not so much the stress that’s going to kill us—or make us unhappy at work—but how we handle it. What worked for our ancestors when they needed an adrenalin rush to get them out of harm’s way isn’t working for us in the same way nature designed it. We’re more likely to get our feelings hurt in today’s workplace, than be hurt by wild animals we’re hunting. And yet, when we “flood,”—ramp up our anger—and vent our frustration with the nearest person, we’ve just flooded our body with damaging chemicals that stay in the body for hours. And, with each additional upset, it takes less to get flooded, because each episode builds on the previous one. A bonus for us as the angry person is that we may have succeeded in recruiting our confidant to our side. But, the cost is great—we’ve now lost the respect, and maybe the trust of the person who listened to our rant and gossip.
“Hostility is used as the ‘sugar high’ of groups,” Maravelas claimed. (Christine Cashen, a speaker at the Women’s Foodservice Forum’s annual conference, made a similar remark in her presentation on dealing with difficult people. All too often, she said, “team building occurs when you all hate the same person.”) There are three cultures at work, Maravelas said: hostility (high negative energy), helpless (manifested in depression and withdrawal) and hearty appreciation (the trademark of cooperative, resilient workplaces).
Unfortunately, our first reaction is all too often hostility, because when presented with a problem by a seemingly stupid person, it’s easy to feel self-righteous.
Her example was taken from real life. The woman in the story felt so victimized by the abusive horn-blowers she encountered that she wrote a letter to the editor of her hometown newspaper to explain why she held up traffic. What happened, Maravelas said, is that the woman was stopped at a red light. When it changed to green, her car didn’t move and she appeared to be trying to reach something in the backseat. She then jumped out of the car, fiddled around in the backseat and then finally after the light had changed again, drove off.
The “normal” reaction to the situation, Maravelas said, is to get angry about how inconsiderate the woman is, or to label her just another “stupid woman driver.” A second reaction is to internalize, and blame yourself for not leaving for work earlier or for taking that particular route (although this was a viable option, no one attending the Women’s Franchise Network felt the need to blame themselves for this woman’s actions).
The third reaction is to assume there’s a good reason for the woman’s actions. And, in this particular case there was: There was a baby in the backseat choking and the mother was frantic to clear his throat.
What the story illustrates, Maravelas said, is that most situations that drive us crazy have “a baby in the backseat.”
Once we train ourselves to be on the lookout for why people do the things they do, we’ll be less likely to get worked up over situations and more adept at looking for solutions. Which is wise, she added, because inflammatory thinking cancels out our ability to problem solve.
Maravelas, whose company Thera Rising is based in St. Paul, has spent the last 20 years resolving 220 workplace conflicts. While sometimes the problems are complex, often they are simply a matter of shifting the focus off the personalities and onto the processes. “Good people will do bad things in poor systems,” she said.
Leaders, she pointed out, need to be careful that they don’t feed into the spiral of blame, such as confiding to their sales team that if only marketing wasn’t so inept or the big boss so clueless… “Count on it getting back to the person you’re talking about,” Maravelas warned.
Ah, but it’s so hard not to gossip. Maravelas shared a story from one of her clients. A group of people attended a company function where they noticed an older man who had a young, attractive woman hanging on his arm. Everywhere the man went the young woman accompanied him.
“They appeared to be joined at the hip,” Maravelas said. By the time the man went on stage to accept an award—accompanied by the “bimbo,” the group was poking each other in disbelief and rolling their eyes. A few minutes later the object of their disdain all evening walked by their table and they realized the man was blind.
An ancient Chinese proverb says it best—“There are two dogs inside every man: The one who dominates is the one that’s fed.” “Be sure you’re feeding the right dog,” she said.