Managing tension at work

Managing tension at work

2023. February 20.

Companies have very different ways of dealing with delicate, emotional workplace situations. There are cultures where it is perfectly acceptable to avoid and contain disagreements.

In others, it’s normal to fight aggressively, to the extent that people go home with stomach aches or high blood pressure after a typical day at the office.

Some companies have developed a culture where they expect this of each other: “We have a problem with each other, we bring it up, and we talk about it until we solve it. We don’t point fingers, we don’t accuse, we don’t belittle. We don’t take it really personally because we’re so used to it that when we put an issue on the agenda or give feedback, we don’t need anyone to get upset.” This is the environment Eryn Kalish helps her clients achieve as a mediator and relationship expert.

„How many hours are wasted by our staff sitting in their office, agitated; writing an ugly email and then deleting it, or tossing and turning in the night in frustration, eating or drinking too much and stressed at home?” she asks. „Some of this is normal, we are made of people working together. The question is: how well can we keep our calm and openness? Just as much as we can speed up our ability to process the collisions without excessive internal tension that degrades our health, our productivity, our families, our society.”

We live in a fast-fire environment, no question about it. In most cases, it really would be a luxury to wait a long time to sort out important problems. Feedback is turning around faster and faster. We need to deal with our differences more quickly, more directly, honestly and with compassion. In the meantime, we must not leave out anything essential, because it may determine whether we make a good or bad decision. It is not necessary to be too direct. Brain science has shown that expressing our problems calmly, kindly and clearly helps to open up the creative centers of the brain. This can help us find new solutions to overwhelming problems.

Younger companies tend to have this style; older or more traditional ones less so. Kalysh says this is partly because people lack the necessary skills, or feel insecure, or do not trust themselves or others to respond well. They fear that bringing a problem out into the open will only exacerbate it. Sometimes they have experienced too much pain or punishment for doing so, and the stories of this resonate within the company.

Kalish also sees that people and organizations are often confusingly polarized, which prevents them from finding common ground and then creative solutions. Or they are too intense: „Don’t tolerate anything, get on the agenda immediately if there is a problem” – where there is no way to think things through. In other places, the tactic is „Wait and see”, hoping that things will sort themselves out – but only really dealing with difficult problems when it’s too late.

According to Kalish, sometimes the wait-and-see strategy works, but more often than not, things only get worse. „In addition, if you leave disagreements unresolved, it sets off a ripple effect in the organization, and as a result, everyone starts to shut up and people work in a subdued, fearful way.” That’s a huge loss, because most disagreements in companies can be resolved, and in today’s difficult climate, everyone needs to be on board. We need creative, collaborative team spirit, not depressed, fearful workers!

„If we resolve differences directly, clearly and in a timely manner, new solutions can emerge. This is a great opportunity!” she says. „When we channel these disputes into a normal channel, it’s amazing to see how much things can change.” Kalish suggests that if you want to improve your company’s ability to handle emotionally saturated situations well, you should first assess where you are now.

„It all depends on whether we have the skills to handle a delicate conversation. If so, take Nike’s advice and Just do it! If not, it’s essential to get the training and coaching we need.”

„It all depends on openness and transparency. A lot of times it’s just a matter of being open with the team and saying, ‘I think we’ve been avoiding this issue and I want to change it’.

We have to recognize that change takes time. If our staff have been working in a closed environment, they will not immediately believe that they can give open feedback to their boss without any further ado.

We often hear from senior managers, „I’ve created a really open environment and yet no one says anything.” Don’t expect people to change quickly! It takes time to build trust, especially in such a difficult economic environment where we are surrounded by so much uncertainty. Initially, all you can do is lead by example: share your own concerns and problems, tell people what you think about them and generally be open. This can start the process of change. There is no magic bullet or one-off training that will solve everything. It is about changing habits, and they will only gradually change for the better.”

We can develop, too

Kalish draws on her own experience of being a shy and minimizing subordinate. She encourages us to hone our skills through regular practice. She says: „As an employee, I was constantly having a dialogue with myself in my head about, ‘Should I say it? Should I not say it?’ How should I say it?’ Now, after years of practice, it’s all so easy: I just say it and I find that I don’t even twitch a muscle. Today, it’s like I was born that way. Sometimes I feel that maybe I talk too much. With that said, I get mostly positive reactions, and if I sense that someone is taking what I’m saying the wrong way, I simply ask them, ‘I feel like that was a bit much, am I right?’ I often get a sigh of relief in response, which helps me move on and talk about the subject.”

In Kalish’s experience, if we deal with things with heart and compassion, in most cases what we say is well received.

„These are complicated times, and most of us know how difficult it is to bring something to the surface in a way that doesn’t unnecessarily hurt anyone. In most cases, we get more concessions from the other side than we expected if they feel that we are sincere, serious and have their best interests at heart.”

Today more than ever, as leaders, there is a need to remain balanced and forward-looking in a variety of situations. We must have the willingness to approach any tense situation in a supportive and results-oriented way. This is where our Conversational Capacity program can help.

Further news:

Contact us