I recently wrote a guest post for Tanveer Naseer’s great leadership blog.  In it, I explore how your biases and prejudices about your team members cause destructive conflict.  You can read the full post here.

Writing that post gave me the idea to play out a typical workplace scenario in two different ways.  In this post, you get to listen in on a conflict between two people assuming the worst about each other. Your job is to find all the mistakes and assumptions that caused this conversation to spiral downward. In the next post, you will see how different assumptions completely change the nature and tone (not to mention the outcome) of the conversation.

Let’s see if you can relate.

A small but nicely appointed office on the 3rd floor of a large corporate headquarters building.
Behind the desk sits Sunil, a 37 year old marketing director.
Into his office walks Catherine, the enthusiastic new brand manager for the company’s second tier breakfast cereal brand “Krunchie Kritters.”

(Catherine sits down across from Sunil at his desk.)

Catherine: “I just heard from Josh that you are holding the marketing budget for Krunchies flat for next year. Are you kidding me? How am I supposed to grow the brand with no money!”

(Sunil sits up a little straighter, leans in and puts both of his elbows on the desk.)

Sunil: (Condescendingly) “First of all, maybe you should actually talk to me before jumping to conclusions because you’re actually getting a 2% bump for next year.

(Catherine rolls her eyes and throws herself back in the chair.)

Sunil: “Hang on a minute. What I was going to say is that your budget is a lot better than most people who are getting less than they got this year.”

(Catherine throws up her hands and makes an exasperated sigh.)

Catherine: “I assume that means there’s no money for a tv campaign again this year.”

Sunil: “You’re so fixated on tv ads. Let’s face it, kids aren’t watching tv anymore. If you want eyeballs in the 8-14 age bracket, you’ve got to get product placement deals. I realize they didn’t teach you this when you got your MBA, but if you could think a little more creatively for once, you could do some really leading stuff with the budget you’ve got.”

Catherine: I wish that just once Corporate Marketing could actually help us in the business rather than spending half the budget on whatever it is that you spend it on.

(Catherine turns to head out of Sunil’s office)

Catherine: (sarcastically) “Sunil, I’ve really enjoyed our discussion, thank you SO much for all your help.”

Where did it go wrong?

I spotted multiple places where the trajectory of this conversation could have been changed for the better.  Here’s what I saw, how does it compare to your list?

  1. Sunil stayed behind his desk. To establish a better connection, come out from behind your desk.
  2. Catherine walked in with bad information and started with a negative assumption about the budget instead of asking about the facts.
  3. Catherine made no effort to understand the context that Sunil was facing—she assumed the budget decisions were deliberately aimed at her.
  4. Sunil’s body language became more adversarial. When he put both elbows on the desk, it exaggerated the barrier between them. (All the more reason not to sit at the desk in the first place.)
  5. Sunil failed to empathize with Catherine’s concern over the resources available to grow her business. He assumed she was self-interested and that she was catastrophizing.  He said nothing to make her feel he was on her side.

Those 5 fatal mistakes happened in only the first couple of sentences of this conversation.  I could keep pointing out mistakes, but by this point, it’s already too late.  Now the animal instincts have kicked in and there’s nowhere to go but down.

Tune in next time when we play the same scenario out with positive assumptions

Further Reading

Short-Circuiting Conflict

Your Conflict Defaults

The Case for More Conflict

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