Are You Being Left Behind?

Positive Worker

Do you feel understood and appreciated at work? What happens when you feel that your work is undervalued and your motives are misunderstood? At those times, does your productivity suffer? We know that effectively managing interpersonal issues is absolutely central to any organization's success. Situations that are left to fester can create low morale, impact deadlines, and even drive valued employees to look for greener pastures. So the wise leader will use the variety of tools at his or her disposal to deal with conflict.

The stories that hurt relationships.

Negative attributions—that is, negative assumptions about others—are one of the greatest unrecognized threats to relationship breakdowns and a primary cause of employees feeling unappreciated at work. Let's demystify these automatic stories that lead to catastrophic relationship breakdowns. How can we nail down something so amorphous as a lack of trust? By looking at attributions that are spoken. Attributions are simply the motives we assign to others.

Your brain has a wonderful way of making split-second judgments about time, distance, and safety. Most of these judgments are right on target—but not all. Assuming the worst of another person (without any evidence) will bring you nothing but trouble. When you misjudge others, you destroy relationships. When someone mislabels your motives, your trust is gone before they even finish their accusation. Put another way; your trust is drained by any false assumptions about negative motives. If the "story" I tell myself in my head is that you don't trust me to work without being micromanaged, then I'm shooting holes in our work relationship. No matter how often you try to speak my primary language of appreciation, I'll dismiss your efforts. Attributions are unconscious. But you can learn to spot them by watching for these red flags:

First, assuming that others dislike you, think you're not valuable, or don't care about your needs. For example, saying, "You only wrote me an encouraging note because someone else told you to." When you react with mistrust because of your own hidden beliefs, you break the other person's trust.

Second, assuming the worst in others. For example, thinking, "You secretly want to get rid of me." When you lash out at them because you sense danger, they wonder why your trust evaporated, and then the forest fire of misunderstanding grows. When the smoke clears, some relationships have been broken beyond repair.

The well-intentioned advice that hurts relationships.

I recently worked with a coaching client whom I call "Dan." He is a business executive who has succeeded in life by getting things done. His personality contains an interesting mix of drive, intelligence, humility, persistence, and decisiveness. Dan freely offers advice to others, which serves him well at work but sometimes backfires at home.

During one of our meetings, Dan told me that one of his two adult daughters was frustrated with him. Why? Because he had advised her to write a business recommendation for her sister. His pitch to his daughter went like this:

Anne, I know that your sister has had a lot of trouble with staying in one job for very long. And you are so good at that. Since you're in the same field, I think that a job recommendation from you would carry a lot of weight. You should at least reach out to the hiring manager and put in a good word for your sister. If they know that she is your sister, they might give her a try. You've had a lot of success along the way. You should try to share your good fortune and give your sister a helping hand.

Anne was understandably uncomfortable with her dad's request. It felt like an unwelcome imposition, and Anne was dismayed that her dad was even asking her to put her reputation on the line for her unreliable sister. Further, Anne wasn't sure whether her dad was making a request or a demand. Either way, Anne's dad was demonstrating poor boundaries while trying to be helpful. More concerning, he had no idea that he was way out of line.

What about you? Are you often told to mind your own business? Do you often give unwanted advice? Were you raised by a parent who was controlling? If so, you are likely to have poor boundaries and no way of recognizing that problem. What can you do? For starters, think of boundaries like the concrete barriers that separate roadways from sidewalks. If you go out of your lane and into the walking lane, you'll hear a thump or two. To trained ears, boundary violations also make a thumping noise. Go back and read Dad's pitch to Anne. Each time that he said, "you should", he left his own lane.

If you are in the habit of telling others what they "should" and "should not" do, try to listen for the "clunk" sound and stop yourself. But that is hard to do. If you are really serious about making changes, invite others to remind you with kindness and perhaps even humor when you aren't driving well. And on the other side of the equation, practice speaking up when others cross your boundaries. Try restating what they have said and letting them know when you do (or do not) want advice. Letting them know that you will "think it over"; is a simple way to show respect while preserving your own control.

How to resolve offenses.

Disagreements at work are inevitable. When people act insensitively, it's easy for people to feel offended and to withdraw in frustration. Each offense is a brick. If those bricks aren't cleared out in the short term, you end up with brick walls between people and teams. How can people remove the barriers that arise within and between teams?

Effective apologies remove brick walls. They also open the door to restored trust and improved working relationships. Many apologies fall short because they don't meet the expectations of the recipient. In our research, we have found that there are five different things that people are looking for when they hear an apology. For many people, "sorry" simply isn't enough. We coined the term "apology languages"; for the different phrases that convey sincerity in apologies. When you apologize, be aware that it's very important to cover the points in your apology that the other person is waiting to hear. Simply put, the evidence of sincerity in apologies differs from person to person.


Conflicts, disagreements, and misunderstandings are inevitable in the workplace. But how they are handled will make or break coworker relationships— creating either a healthy or toxic work environment. We provide a framework for understanding relational difficulties at work and offer tools to manage them effectively. We do not believe that attempting to build a conflict-free workplace is realistic or even desirable. Differences—of perspective, in personality, in communication style, in values and priorities—are key to building thriving organizations.

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