“Hi, John. Nice tie.” We have the ability to take this one simple sentence and saturate it with meaning. I might think, “Why yes it is! You obviously have great taste.” Or, “What’s that supposed to mean? You think your tie is better?” Or, “Why is that person bothering to comment on my tie? Am I about to get bad news, and he’s just trying to break the fall a little.” Our attitudes have a starring role in workplace conflict. Conflict is often about perceptions, and the outlook we bring into the workplace can be a determinant in whether discord is allowed to take root.
I would suggest that if you have an optimistic view of the world, you’ll tend to be less disposed to assume ill intention every time something doesn’t go the way you want it to. Pessimists may be more likely to see the cloud rather than the silver lining. Our perceptions tend to be situational as well; everyone, even the most optimistic of us, can be overcome by pessimism and regard people’s motivations as negative.
At the centre of all conflict is perception. In a hockey game, for instance, one player bumps into another. It could be he lost his balance; it could be he just wasn’t paying attention. The bumped player might jump to the conclusion that there was ill intent; that the first player wanted to take a cheap shot. This is a physical example; in the workplace, we usually deal with emotional or mental situations in which people perceive harm not to their person, but to their dignity, ego, interests, and identity. The perception takes on a life of its own, becoming in effect a separate entity from the actual precipitating event.
Optimistic people may find it easier to shake off the event, while pessimistic people cling to it. When this happens, we can do a few different things. First, try to stop the automatic fight/flight response. We have to slow down and think: is this person really out to get me? When Sam was asked to do an important project instead of me, for instance, was it personal? Did my boss really want to punish me/make me mad, etc.?
Next, think about why you’re reacting this way. Are you feeling unsure about your ability or role in the group? Finally, try to think about it in a different way. Could it be because I did the last big project? Or that Sam has more experience in this particular area? Or that my supervisor wants to free me up for something else? If Sam was chosen because she will do a better job, what skills does she have that I could work on?
When supervisors and teams are aware that how they perceive a situation may not be in line with how the other person intended it, they can prevent conflict from taking over the work environment. If you are worried about what was meant by some action, comment, or worried look – ask! Asking in a way that does not set off another chain of assumed bad intention will be your next challenge.