Having conflict at work is inevitable. With all of us managing so many competing priorities, negotiating limited resources, and aiming to be both tactical and strategic, it’s amazing that any work gets done at all. And despite the fact that so many situational, organizational, and systemic issues in our companies contribute to our stress, we tend to point to other people as the problem.
We ask “who screwed this up?” rather than “what’s going on?” We complain that “Jon didn’t tell us what this project’s all about” rather advocate that “the team would benefit from additional context”. We claim, “Dana is impossible to pin down” rather than inquiring, “who can help me get on Dana’s calendar?” These approaches are unproductive, and undermine relationships and outcomes.
As Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, authors of, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading, would say, we stay on the “dance floor” (where our vision is limited to the person directly in front of us) rather than move up to “the balcony” (where we can see what’s happening from an observer’s perspective).
On the dance floor, the problem looks like Jon or Dana or whomever we’re colliding with. On the balcony, we can see the bigger picture, and are able to observe patterns and systems that are contributing the conflict. Heifetz and Linsky write, “the only way you can gain both a clearer view of reality and some perspective on the bigger picture is by distancing yourself from the fray.”
Of course, it’s often quicker and easier for you to label a person as the problem, especially if you’re working with someone who has a reputation for being difficult. That being said, it will likely be quicker and easier for them to label you as the problem, too. And then where are you? Stuck. On the dance floor. Stepping on each other’s toes.
Or, you could take a step up to the balcony — perhaps even together — to see if you get some big picture perspective.
Here are 30 “balcony observations” you might notice about what’s happening on the dance floor (instead of blaming someone for stepping on your toes).
A need to clarify:
1. Who is responsible.
2. Who is accountable.
3. Who else should be involved, consulted or informed.
4. What a successful outcome should look like.
5. How this project fits into the bigger picture.
6. What resources are available to me.
7. What the risks are.
8. What we can learn from past experiences doing something similar.
9. How much autonomy we have.
10. Who we can ask for help.
A desire for more time to:
11. Process what has been shared with me.
12. Analyze the data.
13. Plan the work.
14. Communicate the plan.
15. Re-prioritize my work or the work of others.
16. Identify and/or secure resources.
17. Learn how to do it.
18. Execute the tasks.
19. Get others up to speed.
20. Get buy-in or agreement.
21. Address others’ questions and concerns.
Additional support needed to:
22. Manage and communicate expectations clearly.
23. Negotiate competing priorities.
24. Set and maintain boundaries.
25. Manage a fear of failure.
26. Partner with someone who has a different work or communication style.
27. Get on someone’s busy calendar.
28. Speak to someone in a position of power.
29. Advocate for what I/we need.
30. Say no.
When you focus less on who is doing what to you, and more on what may be happening in the system, you’re more likely to find solutions that work better, for longer, and for more people.