He wants to say something, but when he tried to subtly complain to a colleague at the downtown investment bank where they both work, “I got a stupid response, something like ‘There’s no ‘I’ in team,’ ” he says.
That doesn’t ring true for Smith, especially when one of his teammates or boss showcases his best work during a presentation and accepts the praise without acknowledging Smith’s contributions.
“I want to say something to someone. I have all of these scripts in my head,” says the Jersey City resident, who’s using a pseudonym, fearing career repercussions. But every time Smith almost musters the courage to speak up, he starts weighing possible consequences, like being called immature or not a team player, and swallows his words. The situation causes him so much frustration that he’s considering quitting his job.
While that may seem like a drastic reaction, it’s actually quite common according to experts. “People believe that some conversations are so scary that they go to extreme lengths to avoid them,” says Justin Hale, a master trainer at VitalSmarts, a Provo, Utah-based leadership training company.
A survey conducted by VitalSmarts found that more than 80 percent of workers are fearful of confrontation. The lengths that they go to avoid difficult conversations range from avoiding the other person at all costs (50 percent), dancing around the scary topic whenever they speak to the person in question (37 percent), thinking about quitting their job or taking a different job (37 percent) and actually quitting their job (11 percent).
But workers must learn to have difficult dialogues, regardless of how uncomfortable they might feel, because the need will come up many times during one’s career, says Sheila Heen, a lecturer at Harvard Law and co-author of New York Times business best seller “Difficult Conversations, How to Discuss What Matters Most.”
In fact, the survey found that the subjects of concern the workers were most reluctant to address are about a person’s workplace performance, failure to keep promises, obnoxious behaviors and even body odor and smells emitted from the food they bring in.
Judy Ringer, co-author of “Turn Enemies Into Allies: The Art of Peace in the Workplace — Conflict Resolution for Leaders, Managers, and Anyone Stuck in the Middle” (Career Press) offers a strategy toward addressing what’s bothering you. “Think of it as practicing a skill that you need. And, remember, if you avoid having these conversations, that’s what you’re practicing. If you try to have them, even if you don’t get the result that you want, you’ll get better at having the conversations.”
Besides, “conversations don’t need to be scary, we make them scary,” says Melanie Katzman, Ph.D., a business psychologist and author of “Connect First: 52 Simple Ways to Ignite Success, Meaning, and Joy at Work” (McGraw-Hill). She claims that the colleagues with whom we have issues aren’t usually the monsters we think they are.
“They’re people,” she says. “If it helps, think of them as people wearing costumes. The person isn’t actually a witch or a goblin, they are just wearing the costume. Talk to the person and not to the costume.”
And while that may be easier said than done, we’ve identified four different “monsters” commonly found in the workplace and asked experts how to have effective conversations in each of these cases
Don’t treat witches as if they are wicked
Hale suggests you give workers the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they have a personality defect, maybe they have no idea they are showing up that way. Pull them aside. “Talk privately,” he says. “Speak as if you care about them as an individual, describe the behavior, not your opinion of the behavior and how it affects you.”
Get the skeleton to put some skin in the game
You know this colleague — the one who doesn’t return or answer e-mails, stick to deadlines, or put much effort into team projects. Most workers would like to scream “Do your job, dammit,” but instead they bite their tongues and do their work for them. Don’t let this go on, says Katzman. “Have the conversation. Pull the person aside and ask, “Do you want to help?”
Don’t get wrapped up in the mummy’s stuff
These are the co-workers who are addicted to drama, so they create chaos wherever they go. They bring gossip into work interactions, play devil’s advocate for no good reason and continuously change their minds. “Stay as far away from this person as possible,” says Heen. Other experts agree. If you have to work with the mummy, “Try to understand what’s going on for them. Are they anxious?,” Heen asks.
Don’t let fear turn you into a zombie
Rare is the workplace that doesn’t have at least a few domineering individuals who make unreasonable demands, talk over you and treat people like idiots if they’re not on the same page. Don’t let these types turn you into a dummy. Remind yourself, “There’s no reason I can’t have a voice in the conversation,” says Ringer.
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