Some people might tell you that the only way to manage work disagreements is to dive right in and straighten things out. This isn’t true. While dealing with the conflict directly can be the most effective route, it isn’t the only one. In this chapter I explain your four options: Do nothing, address it, indirectly, address it directly, and exit the relationship.
Address It Indirectly: Skirt the Issue
If you decide to try to change the situation by addressing it, there are two ways to do that. The first is to confront someone indirectly.
Indirect confrontation is when you choose to circle around an issue rather than naming it and addressing it together. Maybe you appeal to someone else who can talk to your counterpart (say, your boss or a coworker
who knows the person better), or you talk about the situation without ever naming the issue. To those in certain cultures that tend to address conflict directly, this may sound backhanded and completely ineffective. But in some places, particularly those where saving face is important, this is the approach of choice. “In many Asian cultures, group harmony is incredibly important. It’s not appropriate to say, ‘We have a disagreement,’” says Erin Meyer, author of The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business. “If you have a conflict with someone on a Japanese team, for example, you would not sit down and talk it through.”
Brett explains that one tactic is to use a story or a metaphor. For example, if you’re upset about a colleague who is constantly interrupting you, you might tell a story about an employee you previously managed who struggled to listen. The moral of the story—that listening is a valuable but tough-to-learn skill—may prompt your counterpart to reflect on her own behavior. “You see this all the time in China and other Asian countries. They are respecting the other party to understand the problem and do something about it rather than telling them what to do,” says Brett.
Another way to indirectly address a conflict is to get a third party involved. “In some African cultures, when you have a conflict, you work through a friend. That person works it out for you so that you never have a direct confrontation,” says Meyer. You might go to your boss and explain that your interrupting colleague is preventing you from conducting a successful meeting. In some culture it may be clear that you expect that she will talk to your coworker. In others, you may need to ask. Similarly, if you and another team member don’t agree on how to spend money in your shared budget, you might ask your boss to make the decision so that neither of you is seen as losing. Instead, you’re just carrying out your manager’s orders. Again, in Western cultures, this might be frowned upon because you may be seen as giving away your power or failing to step up to the plate, but in other places, this is an effective way to handle the disagreement.
This option has several risks. If your indirect approach is too indirect, your counterpart may completely miss the message you’re trying to send and may not change, or he may just think that “someone else” really messed up. Another risk is that your counterpart hears that you were reaching out to other people about his behavior and may resent that you went around him rather than speaking with him about it first. Lastly, if your counterpart is from a more direct culture, he may not respect what he perceives to be a passive approach.
Remember that this option and the “do nothing” option are different than avoiding conflict altogether.
Steering away from conflict is not the same as making a conscious choice to address it indirectly. Watch out if you tend to avoid conflict and find yourself exercising this option regularly.
• It’s important in your culture to save face and not embarrass people
• You work in a place (office or country) where direct confrontation is inappropriate
• You think the other person will be more willing to take feedback from someone else—either someone more powerful than you, such as a boss, or someone he trusts, such as a close confidant
Keep in mind that this option
• May not work in Western cultures, where the expectation is generally to speak directly with
someone when you have a problem
• Can backfire if your counterpart finds out about your behind-the-scenes work and is unhappy about it
• May fail if your counterpart doesn’t understand your story or metaphor
What it looks like in practice
Carlos worked as an estimator for a large contractor company, and his new boss, Peter, was a classic micromanager.
“He was very operations focused and wanted to know what I was doing all the time,” says Carlos. “I was constantly getting emails from him asking about details on my projects that he didn’t need to know.” Carlos was afraid that if he told Peter he was micro managing him, Peter would get worse, not trusting that Carlos would do the work the way Peter wanted. “I was good at my job. I just needed him to back off some,” explains Carlos.
He decided to approach the conversation by talking to Peter about one of his own direct reports, Vince. “I told him that since Vince was new, he probably needed some closer managing, but that I really saw our job as helping these younger people to learn the job on their own and empower them as much as possible,” he says. Peter was a bit hesitant and tried to argue that some people needed to be micromanaged. The two then got into a discussion about who needed closer supervision and who didn’t.
Without addressing the issue directly, Carlos was able to make the case that he didn’t need Peter always looking over his shoulder. And it worked. Peter still managed Carlos more closely than Carlos preferred, but the conversation seemed to encourage Peter to give Carlos a longer leash.