Navigating conflicts in the workplace …can be amongst the most cumbersome and stressful events that take part in one’s professional life. The reasons for this are particularly clear: Well defined power relations, nuanced power plays, and job security generally spring to mind as to why politicking at work can sometimes become commonplace. While some thrive in asserting their dominance in contentious situations, regardless of who their ‘higher up’ may be, it is particularly difficult for others to do well in overcoming clashes while keeping their needs met and the outcome in their favour, without any resultant embitterment. Whether it’s a case of a colleague simply crossing the line or someone taking credit where your credit is due, it is those who are highly agreeable, or rather, who handle conflicts with overwhelming politeness, which often fair the worst when it comes to navigating conflicts in the workplace.
A person who is highly agreeable generally espouses characteristics of modesty, trustworthiness, kindness, warmth, consideration, and sympathy, and feels most comfortable in cooperative situations. For them, having to be dominant or assertive provokes feelings of high anxiety, which can be particularly troublesome when it comes to conflict. Often-times, people who are agreeable put their own needs and feelings aside in order to ensure the conflict resolved, even at the expense of themselves. In other words, they always take the polite way out, particularly in the workplace.
Feeling bitter and often spending days, weeks, months, or even years re-living the conflict, thinking of what he or she could have done or said instead, and building resentment, sometimes intense, against the wrong-doer, at the expense of their own well-being. The problem with agreeableness is that it can truly be destructive to oneself: Take, for instance, the example of Madeline*, a 31 year old marketing manager who always prided herself on being “a nice girl”. As a child, she was taught that being kind to others was a virtue; she grew up paying special attention to the positive feedback she received for being nice and pleasing those around her. She derived much of her self-worth from putting the feelings and needs of other people well above her own. As she grew into an adult with a demanding profession in a leadership role, however, she found her work colleagues would constantly intrude on her personal life by asking inappropriate questions like, “why aren’t you married yet, who are you dating now” and would continuously dump outstanding work on her – which she politely agreed to do. Perhaps worst of all, she would always found a way to take the blame for any project that went at work, leaving her stressed and at an increased risk for burning out at a young age. Though one’s personality can never fully be altered, there is a way to overcome this instinctual need to be polite which could be hampering your ability to move forward in the workplace. That is, building up the ability to be assertive by establishing boundaries can.
Boundaries can be defined as the limits we set with other people, which indicate what we find acceptable and unacceptable in their behaviour towards us. The ability to know our boundaries generally comes from a healthy sense of self-worth, or valuing yourself in a way that is not contingent on other people or the feelings they have toward you. Unlike self-esteem (which some research has found to be strongly related to the relatively fixed personality dimensions of high extroversion and low neuroticism), self-worth is finding intrinsic value in who you are, so that you can be aware of your:
- Intellectual worth and boundaries you are entitled to your own thoughts and opinions, as are others.
- Emotional worth and boundaries you are entitled to your own feelings to a given situation, as are others.
- Physical worth and boundaries you are entitled to your space, however wide it may be, as are others.
- Social worth and boundaries you are entitled to your own friends and to pursuing your own social activities, as are others.
- Spiritual worth and boundaries you are entitled to your own spiritual beliefs, as are others.
Though people who are agreeable may know their worth, they have a tough time enforcing it when it comes to conflicts because they feel badly when offending others; after all, knowing our boundaries and setting them are two very different hurdles to overcome. Setting boundaries does not always come easily and often a skill that needs to be learned and practiced. As renowned psychologist Albert Bandura noted, much of human social learning comes from modeling behaviour, so if we do not have adequate role models whose behaviour we can encode through observation and later imitate, we are at a loss, often left fumbling and frustrated.
In Madeline’s case, although she had high self-esteem, she derived her feelings of self-worth from people-pleasing, which was unhealthy and particularly detrimental in the workplace, particularly in a managerial position. If unchanged, her inability to be assertive could even cost her a future in her job. In addition to finding a stronger sense of self-worth that existed apart from the value judgements of others, she also needed to learn how to set boundaries, especially in her professional life.
If you find yourself identifying with this article and being overly agreeable or polite when engaging in conflict to the detriment of yourself, start setting your boundaries straight. This is how:
Know your limits
Clearly define what your intellectual, emotional, physical, and spiritual boundaries are with strangers, work colleagues, friends, and even family, and intimate partners. Examine past experiences where you felt discomfort, anger, resentment or frustration with an individual. It may have been because your limits had been crossed. Create a ‘Boundary Chart’ which outlines each boundary per each relationship category and fill it in with the boundary criteria you feel comfortable and safe with, and vice versa (I don’t feel comfortable when work colleagues ask me about my childhood illness/dating life/parents’ divorce; I don’t feel comfortable when I am pressured to help a colleague on a task he or she should be doing by him or herself; I dislike it when others take credit for my ideas).
By creating this sort of template you have a benchmark to assess when someone may be overstepping your boundaries. Your boundary criteria will evolve over time, so be sure to continuously update your chart with your growing experience and resulting needs.
Impose your limits Creating and stating boundaries is great, but it’s the follow-through that counts. The only way to truly alert others that your boundaries have been crossed is to be direct with them. Being assertive, particularly if you are unaccustomed to doing so, can be scary. The key is to start small with something manageable and build up your assertive skill to larger tasks like these:
Do you feel pressured to pay for your colleagues lunches?
Ask the waiter for split bills.
Is your work colleague intruding on your dating life?
Say “I respect you as a work colleague, but I like keeping my personal life to myself; I appreciate your curiosity but I’d rather talk about something else”.
Is a work colleague pushing his or her work onto you?
Remind them that it isn’t within your scope, you are busy with your own work, and direct them to someone who will be of better service.
Did a colleague take credit for your idea?
Remind him or her that you had discussed it with them previously and they hadn’t mentioned that they had thought of the same thing.
Do you apologize when you needn’t?
Take responsibility for your actions, and apologize for only what you are truly responsible for. However, stop there: Allow others to set their records straight. At the end of the day, you do no one any favours by not letting others identify, take responsibility, and learn from their mistakes. Having an “autopsy” meeting of a failed project where everyone is encouraged to share their thoughts on what went wrong and what they take personal responsibility for can help each member of the team feel responsibility for wins and losses.
Practice makes perfect
When you first start acting assertively, if it is a departure from your habitual state, you may be afraid that others will perceive you as mean or rude. But affirming your boundaries means that you value yourself, your needs, and your feelings more than the thoughts and opinions of your colleagues. Being assertive does not mean that you are unkind, it only means that you are being fair and honest with them (and, thus, kind to them in the long run), while maintaining your peace, dignity, and self-respect.
After all, not informing someone that they have crossed a line only leads to resentment on your end and confusion on theirs. The only way to set better boundaries is by practicing how to tell someone that they’ve crossed yours.
If all else fails, escalate up Voice your boundaries first, then follow with action. As long as you have tied up loose ends, you have asserted yourself and made it clear to another person that he or she is not respecting your boundaries or “fighting fair”, it is okay to ignore correspondence from that point forward and contact HR. Remind yourself of your own worth, and that no one has the right to make you feel uncomfortable or take your self-defined space away from you.