Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Toddler Approach to Managing Conflict

Last week at work was crappy for me. Prior to that I'd had a honeymoon run of two and a half months where I was literally humming to myself while driving to work, smiling at the thought of the work day that lay ahead. Feeling really happy that I was adding value and able to contribute and was working with an amazing team of people. The rain clouds had to gather at some stage.

In a nutshell, a colleague holding a more senior position at work ranted at me for almost an hour, over what seemed to be an invented issue, working herself up into an emotional state in the process, and not allowing me a word in edge-wise (quite hard to do, but it was done!). Scary thing? I'd barely had three conversations with this person!

Anyway, this post isn't about the actual unpleasant rant - I've got boundaries in this blog, one of which is not to discuss work in too much detail. Wouldn't want to be dooced.

Instead, it's inspired by something D said when I related the surreal incident to him. He said the colleague in question sounded like she was throwing a toddler tantrum. Which led me to conceptualise the following management theory:

The Toddler Approach to Managing Conflict

Hypothetical scenario: You are sitting peacably at your desk, concentrating hard on drafting a media release. Suddenly, a colleague appears from behind you and asks you whether it was true that you had commented about project XYZ at a meeting where the bosses were present. If it is true, then she is very unhappy that you had even given an opinion about project XYZ, as project XYZ was hers and no one, repeat, no one, was allowed to talk about it, except for her. Your colleague stops to breathe at this point, and you are about to say, "I'm sorry if you are upset about what I said. I was giving an opinion as the bosses had asked me what I thought was needed for project XYZ to get good publicity from the media. I gave them a few suggestions to consider, and that was that." But you are unable to as she quickly resumes her monologue, but this time talking increasingly faster, louder, and you notice, worryingly, that her eyes have welled up in tears and she is turning a slight purply-red. She is also stabbing her index finger awfully close to your nose. People are gathered discreetly outside your office to be entertained. What do you do?

Possible solution: If you are a parent, picture your toddler where your colleague is. Bring yourself back to a particularly intense tantrum, say, the one where your son refused to stop screaming and crying because you took the plastic knife with the serrated edge away from him, and gave him a wooden spoon instead. Place yourself squarely in that moment, where your son's cries grow louder and louder, accompanied by foot stamping, and ends in him throwing not just the spoon, but his whole body on the floor in a shuddering heap. Now, react.

Not all reactions will be the same of course, but a possibly common one would take this shape:

1. You physically distance yourself from your colleague.

2. Your voice and demeanour grow more dispassionate as hers grows more hysterical.

3. You slow down the rhythm of your speech, and speak in as calm a tone as you possibly can muster.

4. You say in a quiet, steady voice that you will only engage with said colleague/toddler when said colleague/toddler has calmed down and stopped crying.

5. In the meantime, you tell said colleague/toddler that you will be in the next room, and that you are there for her/him.

6. You walk away, and wait. If you are lucky, you get to read a few pages of People Magazine.

7. Colleague/toddler calms down. Life continues on.


I'm so going to adopt this approach next time something like this happens to me (hopefully not too often. It's so draining!). Thanks so much to D for sparking this idea, and to Jordy for the regular role-plays!

On that note, I'm off to watch Episode 4 of The Wire Season 1. So amazingly good!


unk Dicko said...

In my long working life,I have never had anyone ranting at me as painted. But have seen similar scenes, though quite rarely and usually between ladies.
Personally,I once had a very young upstart assistant Sports Sec reporting to me. She was chosen or volunteered to be the "front person" by the long established power clique to try to destabilise me at work. By complaining, making insinuations, once even crying LOUDLY near my table deliberately to attract all attention and more importantly to " create the impression" that I may have scolded her, slapped her, bullied her or ad nauseum!
Fortunately, my table was just outside the P's office and surrounded by the Gen Office staff...who had full view of the " Hollywood act" put on by this young impertinent lady.
Her clique( many ) rushed to my table to register their vehemence and throwing threats at me. Some made open and dangerous remarks by way of asking me, " You hit her is it? "
When I remained cool and calm.,,they added, "if not why is she crying ?".
From their actions and response, and even before they put on that infantile display, I had already observed, analysed and concluded that this was a clique and had identified all the members( took me less than 3 weeks and I was a NEW Head there).
So, sometimes these are just unexplained volcanic eruptions like toddlers' tantrums.
But sometimes they are " Hollywood " stuff...meant to trigger a WRONG RESPONSE from you.
Don't ever fall into such a trap!
Btw, that infantile clique, including a few senior ladies, was checkmated by me in less than a year.
I did not say a single harsh word to them.
How I did it was simple. I gained the confidence of just one of them and he/she was the whistle blower under my intense interrogation.
A few left the school soon after probably afraid of repercussions from the exposure.
These ganging up by staff to intimidate me ( of all people! haha) made them all looked very foolish, childish, unprofessional and evil-hearted.
On the other hand I gave uncalled for help to most of them, time and time again....including the young upstart- even giving her a good recommendation for a promotional posting later...and she's doing well now.
If I had intended to bring her down, she would have ended up in the gutters.
I'm relating all this so that you will not overreact...that's what people like to see.
My boss ( Principal) and even HIGHER bosses ( Supts/DDs )were aware of all this and were NOT surprised by my coolness and calmness in dealing with such office politics...repaying evil with good.

maree said...

Gosh...what a shame your colleague didn't have the excellent parenting that wee Jordy is experiencing. She mustn't have had good guidelines during the toddler years! Well done Dora x