21 May

What to Say When Expectations Aren’t Clear

Master Any Workplace Conflict with Ease

Adapted from Karin Hurt and David Dye’s Powerful Phrases for Dealing with Workplace Conflict: What to Say Next to De-stress the Workday, Build Collaboration, and Calm Difficult Customers

If it feels like you never received your company-issued secret decoder ring, you’re likely dealing with unclear norms. Often, people have unspoken values or expectations and there isn’t one “right” way to do things. Maybe your manager never clarified an important process. Or the team hasn’t agreed on norms and conflict results.

Here’s an example that many remote and hybrid teams experience: Should you have your cameras on during a meeting? Your coworker Rachel may feel like it’s completely unnecessary. It drains her energy. Most of the time, no one asks her opinion anyway and her surroundings aren’t chic, so why turn on the camera?

For Zach, the lack of face time is disrespectful and frustrating as he presents his project and gets feedback. Cameras should always be on, he says, unless you’ve got to step away or sneeze or something.

“No,” says your colleague Pat, “that’s wasteful and unnecessary. We need to be on camera only for clients or for a real discussion.”

This is a situation where a lack of established norms creates conflict. None of these people are “right,” as there is no objectively “right or wrong” answer for cameras. In every organization, there will be activity that isn’t covered by a corporate policy. As norms shift, technology changes, and social standards develop, you and your team can resolve these ambiguous norms with a conversation. If there’s no company policy, it can either become a conflict—or an opportunity to use some Powerful Phrases and build a team agreement.

This is one of those workplace conflicts that takes some investigation and intentional conversation to understand what’s happening. It’s so easy to get caught up in an argument without realizing that it’s really a lack of clarity. As you see a conflict building, start with Powerful Phrases that help people understand what’s happening.

How to Deal with...

Powerful Phrases for Dealing with Unclear Norms and Expectations

“It seems that we see this differently . . .”

Summarize the situation and call attention to the fact that people have different perspectives. This might feel like stating the obvious, but it helps everyone rise above their own position to see the situation more objectively. Then follow up with:

“Here’s the challenge we face . . .”

Now you describe the consequences if the lack of clarity continues. For example:

“There’s no rule about this, so it’s up to us to figure it out. The challenge we face if we don’t agree on how we use cameras is that we’ll all feel resentful, disrespected, and exhausted.”

“I know that’s not what we want . . . I’m confident we can . . .”

As you describe the negative consequences, you can then call everyone to their best intentions with this Powerful Phrase. It assumes good intent. For example: “I know we don’t want to exhaust each other. And I know we all want to feel supported, seen, respected, and valued as we do our work. I’m confident we can come up with an agreement that will work for all of us.”

“Let’s decide how to decide.”

At this point in your conversation, the team might realize that it’s someone’s job to make a call. If so, invite them to the discussion or make an appointment to talk with them. Use the “Powerful Phrases to Navigate Competing Goals” in chapter 12 to have a conversation with the decision-maker and get clarity.

But when there’s no assigned decision-maker, it’s helpful to agree first on how the group will decide. Usually this is going to be a vote or consensus. In a vote, the majority rules. In consensus, everyone can live with a choice, even if it wasn’t their first option. For example: “Okay, this one’s our call. Is everyone comfortable with a vote? Or do we want to go for consensus?” (And yes, that’s an example of a quick consensus decision about whether to use a vote or consensus. So meta, right?)

Paperback and audiobook of Powerful Phrases for Dealing with Workplace Conflict

In Powerful Phrases for Dealing with Workplace Conflict: What to Say Next to De-stress the Workday, Build Collaboration, and Calm Difficult Customers, Karin Hurt and David Dye provide essential guide to master any workplace conflict with confidence and ease, have less drama, better results, and thrive at work.