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Are you hearing me? How to resolve workplace misunderstandings

The workplace is filled with misunderstandings both big and small. An off hand comment can send a workplace spiraling. The diversity of the government make misunderstandings even more common. Because of varied backgrounds, experiences and perceptions, employees can interpret messages from managers quite differently, leading to confusion and conflict.

So how do you get around those misunderstanding?

Tom Fox is the Vice President for Leadership and Innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. He told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that misunderstandings can arise from many different areas. The key is resolving them is clear communication.

“Misunderstandings can arise in any sort of circumstances. You can have misunderstandings that arise from the shutdown and the startup. Misunderstandings about what a manager means by a piece of feedback. You could have misunderstandings amongst team members. Your tone, delivery, background and experience could lead to different misperceptions that left unchecked could bubble up to something much more significant. That creates real conflict among your team,” said Fox

Are there more common misunderstandings?

  • More often than not you see misunderstandings arising from feedback. It could be feedback from a leader to the entire team, feedback from a supervisor to an employee or even peer to peer feedback. Unfortunately that feedback is the grease on the skids that leads to productivity but can also quickly halt that productivity and lead ultimately to team dysfunction.

Can you see dysfunction coming?

“It varies based on the individual. If I were to get in conflict with my wife, she will suddenly turn silent. Then I know I am in trouble. If it is me, I will immediately go into problem solving mode and I become much more talkative. What you want to look for is behavior that is different than the typical behavior when you are working with someone. Whether it is a direct report or a teammate, if they begin acting differently that is a good indicator that something is up. It is worth exploring,” said Fox.

What do you do?

“You need to begin by having a conversation. Just start by being direct, forthright and honest with whomever you are working with. Don’t beat around the bush. Maybe somebody is just having a bad day or maybe there is really a major misunderstanding going on. Maybe someone has felt slighted. It is best to get that out on the table and then really clarify matters. So be the bigger person and begin the conversation,” said Fox.

To be open takes LOTS of courage

“I think there is a natural tendency among all of us to avoid conflict. Last week we had an internal training with a diversity expert named Keith Woods from NPR and he talked about the fact that the easiest thing to do is to run away. The toughest thing to do is to bring up something that is uncomfortable, but you have to because you are ruining the relationship with the person you are having the misunderstanding with. That conflict could have a much larger impact on the team as well. This is a case where the pain is worth the gain,” said Fox.

Leaders can learn from misunderstandings too

“You may not want to have that tough conversation but if you can get through it in a productive way you have priceless feedback that you can avoid next time. The most important thing is to realize that this is not a one time event, this is really around building relationships. Even through conflict you can develop a tight relationship with folks, so that you can ensure that the next time you encounter diversity as a team you can get through it better and more effectively,” said Fox.

What should you should watch out for?

  • Don’t be dismissive of the feedback.
  • Don’t label this as not my problem.
  • Think about what “I” can do differently. What can I change to make sure I get the most from my folks.

How do you deal with folks that bring petty grievances?

“There are some people that just have a more negative orientation. In that case what you have to do is really manage the employee. You have to be direct, caring, but direct. Provide them with the feedback that their negativity is the squeaky wheel, they are drawing the productivity and morale of the team down. What you really want to see them do is behave in a new way. Have the conversation with them offline and not in front of other team members,” said Fox.

Look beyond the complaint

“There are times and circumstances that people complaining is often a hidden request. If this is the case where someone is complaining about something repeatedly you may want to get below the surface and see what is underlying the complaint. Maybe there is something you can do as a leader to make them happier and you don’t want to be closed off to that opportunity. That requires some judgement on the leaders part,” said Fox.

What if the problem is you?

“Leading people you need to be resolute. You need to understand who you are. What you can and can’t do as a leader. The real test is, have you tried? Have you made every effort to engage people? Have you listened? Asked questions? Sought feedback? That takes great bravery, to show your weakness and vulnerabilities to folks. But if they aren’t satisfied, you reach a point where you can say to your employees, “I’ve made a great effort to behave differently. I feel like I have done as much as I can. How can we now move forward in a productive and healthy fashion?” said Fox.

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