Workplace Challenge: Navigating Workplace Tension with a Supervisor

Photo by Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash

Workplace Challenge:

My friend Hannah, who works for a large medical device company, recently called to discuss a difficult situation at work.  She has a supervisor who is both driven and difficult to pin down, who expects a lot but doesn’t have time to fully outline the expectations and who often changes course.  As a result, she is left guessing how to best deliver results.  Hannah herself is an engaged, experienced, highly motivated employee, but when she delivers results to this person, she often finds herself with an unhappy supervisor who perceives the objectives haven’t been met.

This uneasy relationship has led Hannah to begin to deeply question her relationship with this supervisor and has led to a lack of trust between them.  Additionally, she doesn’t think addressing the situation directly will be effective, and she doesn’t feel she can share this with anyone else in the workplace.

As we talked further, we started brainstorming what undercurrents may be at play and some actions she could take to mend the relationship from her side and keep her sanity.

  • One non-negotiable item for her was that she wanted to respond, not react.  Despite the discomfort of the current situation she believed there to be other drivers behind this behavior not related to her.  She also had confidence in her own intentions and performance.
  • She didn’t want to exacerbate tensions, and wanted to continue to serve the objectives of the organization.
  • She didn’t want to be a victim, and she wanted to reset the expectations around acceptable professional behavior without further straining the relationship.

After our discussion, Hannah asked for some advice.  In my role as a coach, it is my goal to help people pull from their personal well of wisdom and craft their own solutions.  Often this is best achieved by asking questions and sharing relevant ideas specific to the current situation.  In this case, the idea of Compassionate Conflict seemed most appropriate.

Compassionate Conflict

Nate Regier and his team at Next Element have come up with an elegant framework for engaging in conflict.  They believe that conflict can be leveraged to build, not destroy.  The book:  Conflict Without Casualties – A Field Guide for Leading with Compassionate Accountability has a wealth of great insights that can be immediately applied to any conflict situation.

We have been taught to avoid or mitigate conflict, which often causes us to fall into one of three drama roles:  Victim, Rescuer or Persecutor.  This seldom leads to a positive result or experience.  To leverage conflict to release energy and create, a shift in thinking about conflict and our reactions to it must change, and engaging in the principle of Compassionate Accountability is essential in this shift.

This is achieved by working within the Compassion Cycle.  The Compassion Cycle involves a willingness to engage within a communication framework of being Open, Resourceful, Persistent and Open, or O-R-P-O.  This allows for engagement at different points within the cycle, and can help in getting to the heart of a disagreement or challenge and creating a powerful solution.  It is important to note that depending on the situation and people involved, this can take some time to work. So practice and patience are necessary, but the results can be extremely powerful.

The Plan

Hannah felt like there was a chance to rebuild the relationship and wanted to continue to serve the organization.  She decided to do the following:

  • Take stock of her own triggers, worries, concerns and ego, to be as clear as possible about the desired outcome.
  • Determine several possibilities for engaging the ORPO method with her supervisor, preparing for a variety of scenarios.
  • Manage expectations.  Hannah was fully aware that both parties played a role in this relationship, and was clear on her circle of influence.

Postscript – ORPO Works

Last night, Hannah called me with an update.  She has completed new projects for her supervisor in the last few weeks, and while interactions have remained somewhat strained, she felt that being clear in her intentions and self-worth has softened some of the existing tensions and allowed her to deliver better results to her supervisor.

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