No one likes conflict or criticism, but they are a part of life, especially in work situations in which people can have differing opinions about how to get things done. The key to managing these situations well is to keep our emotions out of it, and to be clear on our motivations. Of course, that is much easier said than done.
First, you must be clear on what your true motivation is in any given situation or conflict. At work, we, of course, should be trying to get the project or our tasks done on time and with available resources, with little or no wasted effort. Sounds simple enough, right? Unfortunately, egos can step in and insight an internal competitiveness telling us that we need to win in a conflict, or prove to the other person that we are right above all else, or our insecurities shout that we should just avoid the other person to avoid creating a conflict. When those become your motives, you have just become the victim of an emotional shark attack.
The Emotional Sharks
Defending – The Swell Shark – a small bottom-dwelling creature. When exposed to a threat, it gulps water to double its size. This transformation is particularly effective if the fish has retreated to a rocky nook from which a predator would be hard-pressed to dislodge a fully swollen shark. It has essentially locked itself in. This is a behavior we can easily fall into when we are challenged. We start defending ourselves and can lock tightly into our position, even when shown evidence that there might be better options. We don’t want to be proven wrong. The motive of defending can easily slip into the next shark attack motive of Outmaneuvering, if we get even more defensive.
Outmaneuvering – The Hammerhead Shark – a fast and twisty beast. Hammerhead sharks have adapted to have sleek and aerodynamic bodies. This allows them to not only swim fast (at speeds clocked at 25 miles per hour), but it also allows them to make quick and sharp turns to both catch prey and avoid predators. This increased agility and ability to out-maneuver large predators are essential to them. The outmaneuvering motivation is one that jumps in front of us the most often, because competitiveness is built into our very fiber from youth. Most of us don’t realize that this competitiveness and desire to win continually drives us away from acting in our best interests. We may start with the right intentions of resolving a problem, but as soon as someone raises a red flag, or challenges us, in a heartbeat we switch into the Hammerhead shark psyche to try and outmaneuver them. We argue over small or irrelevant details or point out the flaws of the other. We make the argument about something that distracts from our original motive and goal.
Attacking – The Bull Shark – an aggressive and dominating predator. These sharks have one of the highest testosterone levels on the planet, and as a result they are very aggressive. They very much want to keep their “personal space,” and even attack others of their kind to establish who is bigger and badder. The more dominant shark will usually show the other who is boss by biting it. The Outmaneuvering motivation can often turn into Attacking. Sometimes the anger increases so much from the battle that has ensued from our “outmaneuvering” or defending motivation, that we move from being competitive and wanting the win, to wanting to harm the other person. We become more aggressive and want the other to suffer, to admit that they were wrong, or to show to others that we were right at their cost, to demonstrate we are the dominating predator.
Avoiding – The Nurse Shark – a creature with no teeth and who likes to hide. The third unhealthy motive is to avoid, or hide from, an uncomfortable interaction. We can choose this motive when we know that a conflict can result. We just assume it’s safer to go silent. Or maybe we are uncomfortable with confrontation, and we accept the certainty of bad results. We think we are choosing peace over conflict, but this shark attack is just as bad as the others. This unhealthy shark attack can manifest as passive aggressive behavior, because we are afraid to state what we really mean. Resentment is often the result, but deferring to stronger voices in the conversation can mean that flaws in their suggestions are missed, or the better solution – your solution – is never even considered.
The key is to pay attention to what is happening to your motives. Is your motive starting to change to save face and dig-in, avoid embarrassment, outmaneuver, be right, or punish others? Our motives can change without any conscious thought on our part. When emotion does the thinking for us, our motives flow with the chemical tide. And this shift of motives can often mean that our original primary objective, that of getting the task done, isn’t met, or is only met by more work, anger, and frustration than is necessary.
Need more help vanquishing Emotional Sharks, or dealing with the difficult people in your life? Check out AETC’s classes Dealing with Difficult People and Emotional Intelligence. Or for even more in-depth leadership focused training, see the Emerging Leaders Intensive program.