4 Limiting Beliefs That Harm Workplace Relationships

Conflict and tension abounds. Building trusting, resilient relationships in the workplace has never been more critical.

By Jocelyn Kung • Oct 10, 2020 Originally published Oct 10, 2020

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This has been a hard year. Between extreme political division, sheltering in place, and grieving the loss of life-as-we-knew-it, collective tension is at an all-time high. The world has changed incredibly rapidly, requiring companies to chart new courses and evolve. At work, this need for rapid change opens the door for conflicting opinions and strong viewpoints about the best path forward. Founders may find themselves at odds, teams may experience friction, and general tension pervades.

In our personal lives, day-to-day conversations can feel like navigating a minefield — dodging divisive topics and disagreements left and right. We can make a conscious choice either to grit through with as little friction as possible, or learn to leverage these opportunities to deepen our understanding of the world — starting with ourselves.

The key to navigating these challenges begins with the right mindset. Here are four beliefs that sabotage our chances for growth when it comes to collaboration and building resilient relationships:

1. We get along best with people that we like

Sure, it's easier to find common ground when you like someone. Chances are, you're drawn to people who share your beliefs, interests and personal style. But allowing these instincts to dictate your relationships will limit you. By surrounding yourself with people just like you, you cut off potential growth and shrink your world. Taking your judgment off auto-pilot requires a mindset change. Start by being curious about everything, especially people who are different from you. Make it a practice to suspend judgment and switch to discovery mode. Everyone has a story. Everyone wants to be seen for who they are. Approach each person as an interesting book to read. Dig into understanding where they are coming from, why they hold their beliefs, and what they fear. Practicing this step takes conscious effort but is essential to building respect and genuine connection. Once that is in place, the learning can begin.

Related: 5 Tips for Turning Stressful Employee Relationships Around

2. We have a double standard for judging others and ourselves

Research shows that people form impressions of others in the blink of an eye — more specifically, a tenth of a second. In that split second, we make judgments about credibility based on physical attributes alone. We continue to evaluate words and actions, making assumptions about why people behave the way they do. We view them through a lens of our own biases and preferences and assign meaning accordingly — often in negative ways when we dislike the behavior. This can quickly lead us to conclusions about a person's overall character that close the door to learning who they really are and how to best collaborate with them.

In contrast, we are much more forgiving with ourselves. We judge ourselves according to our motives, which we typically see as positive. We can usually trace all of our behavior back to something that is good for us: achieving an important need or safeguarding ourselves against harm, for example. To combat this double standard, rather than judging others quickly, we can hit the pause button and stop to inquire. This conversation starts by explicitly naming the behaviors observed, followed by sincere questions about where the person is coming from. The key is to actively listen for feelings and personal meaning, not just facts. Listening with empathy means listening with another person, not just to them. It begins with an intent to understand and support, rather than to judge. Through this, we can uncover a range of underlying needs and interests where we can look for common ground.

3. I can't have your back if you don't have mine

Conventional wisdom may guide us to protect our self-interest by sticking to the old adage, "What's in it for me?" In today's competitive workplace and contentious political environment, we are becoming even more suspicious about others' intentions and more protective of what we share. In his book on reciprocity, "Give and Take", author Adam Grant finds that there are three distinct types of people: givers, takers and matchers. He states that every time we interact with another person at work, we have a choice to make: do we try to claim as much value as we can, or do we contribute value without worrying about what we receive in return? Givers prefer to offer more than they receive, often jumping in and helping others meet their needs without a hidden agenda. Takers tend to be self-focused, evaluating what other people can do for them. Matchers will give proportionately to what they can get in return. Surprisingly, Grant's studies conclude that of all three styles, it's the givers who most succeed. If we extend this theory into the current political climate, our culture is on a crash course toward massive failure. On Grant's theory, the best way forward is to break through the forced choice between winners and losers, good guys and bad. Instead, we need to move toward creative solutions that only come from a deeper understanding of all parties' interests. This change inevitably involves being the first to reach out and become a giver. Giving can simply start with listening. "Empathy is free" It costs us nothing to make time to seek to understand another human being.

Related: Factors Damaging Employee Relations, As Defined by Industry ...

Conflict is damaging to relationships

Most of us have been socialized to avoid conflict. From childhood, we are told to play nice, be positive, and help others. In fact, agreeableness happens to be one of the "Big Five Personalities" that psychologists have found to determine a person's success in life. We are also conditioned to avoid discomfort. Consequently, many of us grow up to be optimistic people-pleasers who bury painful truths (small and large) under the cover of artificial harmony. According to marriage expert Dr. John Gottman, unhappy couples wait an average of six years before getting help. That's over 2,000 days of resentment that amasses before beginning the important work of learning to resolve differences effectively. So what are we so afraid of? Perhaps the fear is that these conversations can devolve into aggressive encounters that hurt feelings and yield no results. Certainly, the forms of violent communication we are experiencing today, where mean-spirited attacks are used to coerce, shame, inhibit, and generally deny the needs and liberties of others, are not productive. Healthy conflict involves the acknowledgment of brutal facts and difficult feelings, a willingness to put them on the table, and skill in dialogue rather than debate, where all parties can speak up and be heard.

We have to accept that conflict is a useful part of life, a necessary catalyst for transformative change. Over many years of supporting organizations through growing pains, I have found that the first, critical step in facilitating healthy conflict is establishing a common language for understanding and communicating with others. There are predictable patterns and differences in how people perceive and approach each other; some people will "speak your language" and others will appear foreign to your instincts and motivations. These differences can easily be misread and result in pushing the buttons that can degenerate into violent communication.

There are many ways of building a foundation for healthy relationships; in conjunction with the practices listed above, I use a tool called Elements at my firm (and in my family) to help people jump-start their understanding of the best way to read and collaborate with people unlike them. Find a framework that works for you and see how a curious mindset, combined with these simple tools, can guide you through relationship challenges, now and in the times ahead.

Related: How Google, Facebook and Amazon Handle Office Romances ...

Jocelyn Kung

CEO of The Kung Group

Jocelyn Kung is a leadership and organizational coach who has worked with many of the world's top technology companies including Apple, Oracle, Microsoft, Cisco, Juniper Networks and 23andMe.

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