When I worked for Intel years ago there was a core course required of all employees called Constructive Confrontation. To the outsider it sounded more destructive of relationships than constructive and, in fact, it would take me years to understand how this didactic training actually worked. (I even delivered a customized version of this course to our strategic suppliers in an effort to help them understand the nature of the company and our culture. It worked.)
Conflict as Balance
I remember the first time someone set-up a "constructive confrontation" meeting with me. Yes, I had gone through the training, but now I was being asked to apply what I learned. I felt as if the playground bully had "called me out" and that if I didn't show up to do battle everyone would think I was spineless. Still fairly new to the company at the time, I already knew that being seen as a woose would not bode well for me.
I asked my manager for some insider tips, but since she was also new to the company it was like the blind leading the blind. So, I decided to show up to get my whooping, experience the process, and (hopefully) learn from it.
It was one of the best workplace experiences of my life. Really.
Sure, voices were raised (loudly) and I got a verbal smack down, but purely from a business standpoint (CC ground rules: no personal attacks). This guy knew his stuff--the process, the objective, and the desired outcome. We walked out with an entirely new way of doing business for our respective teams. It was creative problem-solving at its finest.
We also walked away with a clear understanding of our emotional hot buttons and expectations of one another.
It took me years to understand why the outcome that day was successful. But just as I walked into the room, I remember feeling exhilarated by this opportunity. Once I released my fear of conflict, I shifted my energy and was now in the "zone" ready to learn, share, and experience a new process.
That day I learned how to get out of my own way.
Innovation Is Disruption
For many of us, our natural inclination is to bring order to conflict (jumping too soon to solutions, leaping to conclusions). We're attempting to bring order to chaos before conflict has had a real chance to create change.
We've all been in meetings where everyone seems to be "going around in circles". You can't get to constructive conflict with its potential to innovate, if everyone in the room is holding on to their own obstacles for moving forward.
Repressed feelings, hidden agendas, and unresolved "histories" with others require energy, so when we release this stagnated energy, it's allowed to flow naturally.
Emotional maturity is not an age thing. Emotional maturity is both intelligence and savvy. It's about reflecting outward as well as reflecting inward. It's self-awareness of your emotions with the added boost of recognizing and reading the energy in the room.
Everyone has a different emotional set point. Savvy understanding of how to assist someone who is off-kilter by helping them adjust their set point to optimum is that you're leading them through the process of getting out of their own way.
Sometimes we're our own obstructionists to bringing about change and forward movement.
These self-inflicted hot buttons need to be cross-checked before walking into any meeting, but especially a potentially volatile one.
- Do you feel irritable when you skip a meal? Keep power bars, healthy snacks by your desk or in your purse or briefcase. Don't walk into a meeting only to "bite the heads off" of others in the room because you didn't properly manage your fuel intake.
- Not working on full cylinders because you didn't get enough sleep? When you have a stressful week in store for you with deadlines and tough meetings, try to balance the number of late nights or social events that you attend. You might consider increasing the number of hours that you normally sleep.
- Unresolved issues or emotional history with people? Prioritize based on who you'll need to work with in the first quarter of 2010 and start from there. Meet with these individuals beforehand and attempt to constructively work the issues. It takes courage to deep dive for buried treasure that comes out of conflict!
- Do some situations bring out the worst in you? Maybe it's your 1:1s with your manager or the project team meetings where no one gets along and trust is non-existent. Perhaps, it's the monthly customer meetings that leave you emotionally drained. Focus on tackling these recurring emotional situations in 2010 by dissecting them into smaller "emotional chunks". Look for emotional threads or the common theme of each situation.
- Expectations of others who have no clue what you expect? Are you expecting others to read your mind or body language? Why not share for the holidays. Try to remain open to others not agreeing with your expectations of them. Don't be afraid to renegotiate expectations that others have of you. It's better to renegotiate now and have clear expectations of one another than to say nothing and risk muddying the relationship waters down the road.
Keeping yourself in check is not about becoming emotion-less or striving for perfection. It's about emotional awareness and then managing your situational emotions (as best you can) so that they don't control you.
Why not integrate this "soft skill" into your career strategy for 2010?