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Competing Interests and Clashing Assumptions

BY JACK HAMILTON AND ELISABETH SEAMAN

Co-Authors of 'Conflict - The Unexpected Gift'

What does it take to have strong relationships with coworkers?

"Constructive conflicts are an essential part of producing good work, and yet many people don’t know how to disagree in a congenial way. So how can you deal with inevitable disagreements in a way that improves your relationships as well as your performance on the job?​"

Everyone wants to be heard.

Do you hear and respect viewpoints different than your own? Making it clear to a coworker that you have definitely heard their perspective and have done your best to understand their viewpoint is a good start. An important next step is to let them know that hearing their perspective is not the same as agreeing with them. Chances are that they’ll return the favor by being more willing to listen to you and consider your views.

The Ladder of Assumptions

Here's an example of how to use the Ladder of Assumptions to resolve a conflict at work. A group of coworkers at a West Coast company were tasked with developing a training curriculum. When one of their employees, a telecommuter in the Midwest, started missing due dates, failed to reply to emails and texts; and didn’t respond to phone calls, one of the other team members got frustrated and raced up a Ladder of Assumptions.

The Facts

  1. The telecommuter did not email, call or text over a period of three weeks.
  2. He did call in for the teleconference calls.
  3. He emailed 50 pages of work shortly before deadline and a team teleconference call.
  4. There wasn’t enough time for the other team members to review them and discuss them during the call.

And on up the Ladder...

INTERPRETATIONS. One of the West Coast team members interpreted the telecommuter’s behavior as inconsiderate, irresponsible and unprofessional.

MOTIVES. The motives she attributed to him were that he worked from home because he wanted it all: a high-paying job in a state with a low cost of living and a home near his in-laws, who could babysit. But he didn’t want to work as hard as the rest of them were working.

GENERALIZATIONS. She stereotyped him as one of those telecommuters who take advantage, don’t manage their time well, and deliver subpar work. They work from home, have young children not yet in school, and just don’t focus on their work in the same manner as coworkers who go into their offices to work.

ACTIONS. She was snippy with him during the team teleconference call. Also, she gossiped about him at work with the other two local coworkers on the team, and complained to his boss about his behavior.

Taking a Different Tack

After a few days passed and her irritation subsided somewhat, the West Coast Team Member felt she could, and should, deal with this issue by talking with the Telecommuter about her concerns. They did manage to connect on the phone. She felt it was one small step in the right direction because he had made himself available. They chatted and made small talk at first. She learned he was remodeling his house and his mother-in-law had recently been very ill.

They went on to talk about the frustration those of the West Coast office had felt when he didn’t follow through on his commitments and simultaneously went incommunicado. She praised him for his knowledge of the subject matter and the quality of work he did when he turned work in. After actually talking and listening to him, she realized he did care about the curriculum development project and about pulling his weight on the team.

The frustrated West Coast Team Member also realized that although her phone call with the Telecommuter wasn’t part of a planned strategy, she had definitely gone through the mental steps of going back down to the Facts rung on her Ladder of Assumptions. In the course of their discussion, she changed her assumptions about him and they were able to work out ways to move forward...together.

She realized that she had rushed to judgment about the Telecommuter based on unconscious assumptions, and that he didn’t fit the stereotypical categories in which she had placed him. When she was willing to put aside the assumptions she had made, she changed her view of him. She repaired her relationship with him and made the relationship stronger that it was before.

What do you think? We'd love to hear from you!

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