We are so afraid of emotion in the workplace when in fact emotion is the one thing that enables us to make shifts and changes.
From babies we’re soothed to not cry, through cuddles, food, changed nappies, a warmer blanket. It makes sense. As a baby, crying is our only way to communicate. If people didn’t respond to us we wouldn’t survive. Then this continues as we grow up and gain the ability to speak. When tears come, people do things to try and stop them. Cuddles, food, toys, distractions, their words of ‘stop your tears’, ‘come on, be a brave boy/girl’, ‘stop crying, tears won’t solve anything will they’, ‘don’t be such a baby’. And these words stay with us because we don’t tend to update the ‘rules’ in our head as get older so as we become an adult those instructions to ‘stop crying’ remain with us and make us believe that crying is wrong.
And yet crying is an incredibly helpful way to express how we’re feeling – and to let us know that something doesn’t feel right, that something needs to change. Even if we ‘know’ something doesn’t feel right in our intelligent human brain, we’re good at ignoring that information if it’s inconvenient or uncomfortable – and if we ignore it our body will find another way to get the message through – sometimes that’s through tears.
From children we argue with our siblings and friends. We’re told to ‘stop’, ‘don’t get angry’, ‘you’re mean’, ‘you must be kind to others’. ‘And, look, now you’ve made him cry’ – the ultimate sinful combination! And so it continues when we grow up and we keep this ‘rule’ in our head, transferring it into the workplace where healthy debate and discussion would be really helpful to enable us to think better and generate better solutions. But we’re afraid. Because we’ve been told not to. We’ve been trained to believe it’s mean, that it’s personally harmful towards the other person. And yes, it might be harmful if your intent is to be mean by making someone else’s life difficult. By saying things to them that are intended to hurt and be offensive.
But what if your intent is that you care about that person doing a great job – and you care about them doing a great job because you care about your organisation delivering it’s purpose and achieving the best possible outcomes for its employees, customers, suppliers and all others who are in contact with it.
This great TED Talk that Gillian Frame shared with me is called Dare to Disagree by Margaret Heffernan and it repositions conflict in this way. If we could have more of this adult, healthy conflict our workplaces would dramatically change – and it would help us avoid the stuff that requires ‘Conflict Management’ – the name alone suggests that conflict is something to be controlled, that it’s wrong and that if we don’t control it we might have chaos. And it might cause tears. Our brains are currently trained to believe that conflict, tears and chaos are all bad things to be avoided at all costs!
What Margaret talks about is how, when people behave like adults and share what they’re thinking – even if others might disagree – the debate and conversation that follows is so helpful that it enables generation of a better outcome. Some people might need more help to develop this shift to ‘adult’ but we, at work, are in fact all adults; we’ve just been trained for a really long time to behave like children to the parental role of the manager – and therein lies a conversation for another day….
And healthy conflict needs balance. If you spend all your time in healthy conflict you’ll wear people down. Some faster than others. We need support too, we need help to spot what’s going well, we need to be shown care by those around us. Through this safety and strength of belonging we have the resilience to be challenged in our thinking to be even better than we ever thought possible.