How to resolve a conflict with your boss
Conflict management with your boss. Is that an oxymoron? Like “constant variables” or “unbiased opinions”? You don’t conflict with your boss, right? They lay down the rules and your job is to do what he/she says. “I’m on it, sir—or ma’am,” you say, almost feeling like you need to salute.
Confronting a problem with your boss, it is said, is a career limiting move.
It doesn’t have to be that way. That’s what this post is about. We’ll apply the R.I.S.K.™ Model from our leadership workshop, The You Turn: from Conflict to Collaboration and show you how to initiate an approach that help to resolve conflicts, especially when the “other person” in the conflict is your boss.
Want to give it a whirl? Let’s go.
Have a Plan
The same principles for managing conflict with a colleague, friend or stranger apply when managing conflict with your boss. You need to have a plan—a plan that honors your own self-respect and respect for others. While it’s easy to just agree, grumble and move on, that type of behavior is self-sabotaging and erodes self-esteem. Instead, I want to arm you with a plan of behavior that’s easy to remember, resolves conflict and builds trust. It’s called the R.I.S.K.™ Model.
Here are the 4 elements of the R.I.S.K.™ Model:
R = Remove
I = Identify
S = Share
K = Keep
Let’s take a look at each element in more detail.
R = Remove yourself from emotional responses
Ever been triggered? Emotionally caught off guard? How’s this for a trigger? Your boss sends you a message in Teams (or if you’re back in the office, they stop by) to say, “I need to talk to you in 5 minutes.”
Boom! Instantly, you’re in fight-or-flight mode—or brain hijack, as we call it at NobleEdge. (The technical term is hyperarousal.) Blood flows from the brain—making you less mentally nimble, more prone to reacting than thoughtfully responding—and flows to your extremities for defending yourself or escaping.
Within seconds to minutes, it’s almost guaranteed you’re going to be responding emotionally. When a person is off-balance emotionally, it becomes extremely difficult to engage in constructive responses to conflict. By managing one’s emotions, a person can improve their chances of using constructive behavioral responses to deal with conflict more effectively.
Here's our recommendation. Ask for time. Give yourself permission to get centered before engaging. Try this approach - Ask, “Can we make it in 20 minutes? I need some time to prepare myself.” Then remove yourself to a quiet, secluded space and employ some simple techniques to calm your brain—deep breathing, for example. See: How to calm your brain in the middle of conflict
This approach is also helpful if you are confronted in the moment. Saying, “I’m not prepared to talk about this right now. Can we meet up in 10 minutes?” gives you the opportunity to remove yourself from emotionally exploding and instead, take the time to calm your nervous system.
I = Identify interests and behaviors of all parties
Now that you and your brain are calmer, you can move to identifying interests and behaviors. In other words, get curious. When attempting to defuse a conflict (and BEFORE you get caught up in responding), it’s helpful to understand where the person on the other end of the conflict is coming from.
First off, do some reflective thinking on what your boss’s perspective might be. You’re trying to reframe the situation, see it from the other person’s perspective. Reframing is about gaining a new interpretation of what is right in front of you. Challenge your assumptions!
How do you do this?
Remember, your boss is unlike your peers. In a lot of ways, your peers’ perspective “from the trenches” will be similar to your own. But your boss – she/he has to manage competing priorities and a wider variety of responsibilities. That includes more work, more pressure and a lot more stress than your own. A mistake or failed project may have more far reaching impact. You want to take that into account.
The goal is to engage a non-judgmental frame of mind. Assume positive intent on the part of your boss. Instead of, “It’s always something with her/him!,” imagine why a reasonable, rational person might be upset. Stay objective.
With this broadened perspective, you are ready to resist the urge to defend yourself and instead to ask questions with genuine curiosity and paraphrase back what you hear to ensure clarity. Let them get it all out.
Genuine questions such as:
“Say more about that.”
“Help me understand.”
“Can you give me an example?”
Usually, our perceptions aren’t completely right or completely wrong; they’re just incomplete. To fill in the gaps and get the full picture, be willing to ask open-ended questions or solicit examples to clarify issues. Demonstrate to your boss that you really want to understand his/her point of view. This increases the chances that he/she will probably sense your sincerity and feel you’re taking the matter seriously, not just blowing it off.
S = Share constructive responses, both active and passive
In our The You Turn: from Conflict to Collaboration leadership workshop, we outline active (those you can see) and passive (internal or invisible) constructive conflict responses; behaviors that are scientifically proven to reduce conflict. Constructive behaviors focus on the task at hand or the ideas being discussed. The destructive behaviors focus on personalities—finding fault.
One type of passive behavior that can be very helpful is Adapting. When we adapt, we stay flexible and open to other options. Not every conflict can be solved in a totally satisfactory manner, but if you go into the conversation with a flexible mindset, you’ll more easily be able to make adjustments to come up with a solution that works for both of you.
When you’re adaptable, it also shows the other person you respect them—therefore you can continue to maintain a good working relationship post conflict. Being flexible and adaptable along the way increases the chance of a positive outcome. Asking yourself, “How do I want to be viewed after this conflict is over?” can help guide your actions.
Moving to a behavior that is more outwardly expressed that can help with your boss is Expressing Emotions. Expressing Emotions is the helpful alternative to Displaying Anger. Displaying Anger is all about explosions and eruptions. Slamming your hand down the desk. Berating someone. This can begin a retaliatory spiral where peoples’ negative emotions feed off those of one another.
Meanwhile Expressing Emotions is reasoned and measured. Calmly talking about how you’re feeling. Courteous and professional.
Expressing Emotions is done in a non-blaming manner that focuses on the emotional impact on yourself rather than on blaming the other person in the conflict.
K = Keep the discussion on task
When you focus on the person in the conflict, not their ideas, they can’t help but feel attacked. “You always do stuff like this!” you cry. This is known as an ad hominem argument —a personal attack against the source of an argument, rather than against the argument itself. If you are attacking your opponent's character or personal traits in an attempt to undermine their argument, it will get you nowhere fast. All you’ve done is hack off your boss.
Not a good move.
The opposite of an ad hominem argument is an ad rem argument. Ad rem" is Latin for "to the matter in hand" or "to the point." (Ad hominem means or "to the man.") Something ad rem, or something done ad rem, is focused on the issue being discussed and not focused on the person discussing the issue. That's a good thing.
Don’t see your boss as your opponent in this conflict, confronting each other face to face. Instead, change your perspective to see both of you as being shoulder-to-shoulder, brainstorming, working out a solution together. The problem is “out there,” not “in here.”
It’s also worth noting that part of keeping the focus on ideas and not personalities is not gossiping about your boss to coworkers. Keep the conflict confidential. If your boss gets wind that you’ve been talking behind their back—and it’s almost certain he/she will—you may permanently damage your relationship with him/her. Definitely a career-limiting move.
There’s a reason that one of the most common questions in a job interview is “Tell me about a time you disagreed with your boss.” They’re asking because everyone knows how hard it is to manage conflict with those in leadership. (I’ll bet the person asking the question hasn’t a clue how they’d answer!)
Conflicts at work are inevitable because conflict is just a part of life. And when the conflict is with your boss, the stakes are higher. Just remember, we’re not doing ourselves any favors by knuckling under or acquiescing and then grumbling. It’s not good for them. It’s not good for you. It’s not good for the workplace.
But you can have constructive conflict with your boss—conflict that makes things better. Remember—R.I.S.K.™ it and see what happens. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the result.
Want to learn more about how to resolve conflicts? Check out our leadership workshop, The YOU Turn: from Conflict to Collaboration.
Did you like this post? You'll probably like 3 phrases you can use instead of lashing out in conflict The YOU Turn: from Conflict to Collaboration.
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