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.
When you choose to do nothing, you don’t say anything to your colleague, you let the comment go, or you simply walk away and carry on as if the conflict didn’t happen. Instead of acting on any feelings or impulses you have about a disagreement, you swallow them and move on. This isn’t a cop-out—it’s a seemingly easy and low-effort option for managing conflict. “Most people tend toward loyalty,” says Brian Uzzi, a leadership professor. “That’s because it’s easier to lower your expectations than deal with the real issues at hand.” To be clear, this isn’t taking your bat and ball and going home or storming off. This is simply keeping an issue to yourself rather than raising it.
We do this all the time, often without realizing it. “We put up with an awful lot on a day-to-day basis. We lump conflict all the time without consciously making a decision to do so,” says Jeanne Brett. For many conflicts, it’s a perfectly good approach. It can be a smart move, especially if the risks of addressing the issue feel greater than the potential rewards. “There are certain discussions you’re just better off not having at all, and knowing when to let it go is just as critical as knowing when to engage,” she says.
It may not be worth having the conversation if you don’t think it’s going to go anywhere. “If your colleague is stuck in her ways and has never demonstrated a willingness to concede, what do you gain by pushing her yet again? If the damage is already done—say the project was defunded last week and you’re just finding out about it—it’s probably better to forget about it and move on,” says Brett.
The risk in selecting this option is that your resolve may not stick. The issue may not go away, so your feelings about it may come out sideways as you blow up at your colleague about an unrelated matter. Or your colleague’s behavior may continue or worsen because he is unaware of the problem.
Note that this option and the “address it indirectly” option are different than avoiding conflict altogether. Conflict avoidance is a natural tendency to steer away from conflict whenever possible. These are active, conscious decisions you make to handle a situation. If you tend to avoid conflict, check yourself if you find that you gravitate toward these two options.
• You don’t have the energy or time to invest in preparing for and having a conversation
• You suspect the other person is unwilling to have a constructive conversation
• You have little or no power, particularly in conflicts with people above you
• You won’t beat yourself up or stew about it
Keep in mind that this option
• Requires little work on your part, but it can be frustrating to dismiss your feelings
• Keeps the relationship stable, assuming you can both truly move on
• Won’t work if you’re unable to put it behind you and you risk having an outburst later or acting
passive-aggressively toward your counterpart
• May cause your work to suffer if you continue to feel bad
• Can reinforce bad behavior—if your counterpart got away with it once, she might try again
What it looks like in practice
Clara, a project manager, was helping Lisa, a product manager, develop a launch schedule for testing a new product line, and she thought that Lisa was being overly optimistic. She tried to point out that Lisa’s dates weren’t realistic, but Lisa wouldn’t listen. “I was new, and while her time frame seemed aggressive to me, I couldn’t be sure,” Clara says. “Plus she isn’t the warmest person, and she made it clear she wasn’t really open to my feedback.” When the plan went to the wider team, things blew up. The production manager couldn’t believe that Clara thought her team would drop everything to meet her dates. But Lisa had already shared the schedule with the head of marketing, who had announced the launch date in the market. When the team discussed the schedule, Lisa never once explained that Clara had a difference of opinion and, in fact, implied that the dates were Clara’s work.
“I was livid,” explains Clara, “but I didn’t want to get into a fight in front of our bosses.” She later explained the situation to her manager but decided not to talk with Lisa about it. “She didn’t strike me as the kind of person who would be interested in hashing it out, and this wasn’t the last time we’d have to work together,” she says. “I didn’t see what good would come of it, other than creating more tension.” Instead, she put it behind her and continued to work with Lisa. Though they never directly discussed the issue, Clara says that Lisa was more open to her input on schedules in the future.