Communicating conflicts with superiors isn't easy, but necessary

What management doesn't know can, and ultimately does, hurt everyone. Withholding bad news may give the person(s) responsible additional time to cover their tracks, but in the long run it prevents management from taking corrective action. Open communications between organizational levels, even when it raises tempers, will ultimately pull people together and build trusting relationships.

Learning how to be tactful and professional when communicating negative information is a critical skill that is rarely taught and seldom mastered. Workers tend to keep bad news under wraps and only share what they know when confronted directly by the folks upstairs.

Subordinates who withhold negative information mistakenly assume that management knows when deviations or mishaps occur, but are not attempting to correct the problem because they just don't care. Rather than check out their assumptions first hand, employees talk about the issue only among themselves thus depriving management of critical information.

Moving information uphill

Subordinates must learn to challenge their superiors whenever they come across situations where ambiguity and inconsistency occur. Rather than whine about unfair treatment and blame management for conflicting outcomes, employees must have a way to point out the inequities and give those responsible an opportunity to understand the problem, investigate the cause and make appropriate adjustments.

Anyone in a subordinate role would be wise to ponder these critical questions prior to moving information up the chain of command:

  • What do those above me need to know?

  • What would I like to them to know?

  • What information is helpful and what is not?

  • What's the best time to move information higher?

  • What's the best way to get their attention?

    Making one's point without making an enemy is a necessary part of truth telling and trust building. Addressing the problem rather than attaching blame to another person is also a key factor in communicating upwards. The art of giving and receiving criticism is the key to healthier communications between leaders and followers.

    Exploratory dialogue fosters dynamic workplaces where people thrive and growth occurs naturally. The trick is to have this highly potent conversation in the presence of management where it is more likely to make a difference rather than just among peers where it may stir people's emotions and add to the camaraderie, but it's not likely to change anything.

    Emotions, including anger, are a normal, natural reaction in today's tension-filled workplace. Communicating anger and displeasure not only relieve personal stress and tension, but it builds trust when it's transmitted in an appropriate manner. Modern managers need to know how to encourage truth telling and what to do with anger when it shows up in a group setting.

    Structured confrontation

    As a general rule, it's appropriate to handle anger in a group when people are upset about a situation. If the anger is directed at a person, it's best to handle it outside the group. An effective way to get anger producing issues on the table is to hold regularly scheduled confrontation meetings with your subordinates. When properly facilitated a confrontation session could resolve most of the anger that shows up as inappropriate behaviors in the workplace.

    The confrontation meeting is a structured process where management demonstrates support for orchestrated problem solving by actively participating as part of the group. A great deal can be accomplished in a short time frame by following this suggested format:

    Phase 1 -- Climate Setting. Management states their concerns and assures that no reprimands will be given anyone who brings up a conflict or shares negative information.

    Phase 2 -- Information Collecting. Staff form sub-groups to list those variances or blockages that are hampering productivity or generating conflict.

    Phase 3 -- Information Sharing. Management reviews the lists from each sub-group. A spokesperson may be assigned to help clarify or categorize sub-group statements.

    Phase 4 -- Priority Setting. Management and staff rank order those items that need further exploration. Sub-groups come back with suggestions for management action.

    Phase 5 -- Action Planning. Management and staff each make a list of what they will take action on including timetables and resource allocations.

    Phase 6 -- Follow-up. Management and staff meet separately to develop action plans based on commitments made in Phase 5. The results are reported in Phase 7.

    Phase 7 -- Progress Review. Both sides reconvene regularly to report progress, settle disputes, develop plans and share emerging issues.

    Positive outcomes include more open communications, disclosure of interpersonal and interdepartmental conflicts, improved relations between management and staff, and a renewed sense of commitment to performance and productivity.

    Jones is a management consultant and award-winning author of "Help! I'm Surrounded By Idiots" and "If It's Broken, You Can Fix It."

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