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Bernard McDowell, lcsw
Psychotherapy & Couples Counseling    
2700 SE 26th Avenue Suite D, Portland, OR  97202

Handling Conflicts With Supervisors:  A Summary

Introduction:  A famous psychologist, Dr. Rollo May, concluded that, at the beginning of this century in the U.S., identification with nationality, family, or religion were the main ways people had for valuing themselves.  But in contemporary times, it primarily rests more narrowly on work.  Therefore, when our job is affected, the normal challenges of negotiating skillfully are tremendously amplified.  In almost any conflict with a boss there are potential losses--if not the loss of our career, the loss of a specific position or just the lack of proper recognition.  But in the psychological background of these potential losses lurks a blow to our very identity and self-esteem.  In such cases, it is a basic psychological reflex to defend oneself; so much so, that people neglect the first principles of communication--acknowledging the other's concerns and gathering information.

     Below is an outline with some commentary on skills to handle conflict with supervisors in two broad categories:  1) external communication skills for interacting with others, 2) internal skills to relax, process losses, and decide on and articulate the specific details of your desired outcome.

External Communication Skills

1.  Acknowledge, acknowledge, acknowledge, lead!  Acknowledging the other's criteria, what is most important to them and any emotional charge they have about that, is the first and foremost communication skill--before you lead into your agenda.  Throughout the exchange, after every time the other person speaks, respond initially with some acknowledgment of their concerns. When accused or blamed, it is almost a reflex to immediately explain or defend oneself; so practice ahead of time to feed back acknowledgment first, before stating your case.  E.g.:  Boss:  “You were late again for the meeting”; Employee:  “you're very clear that being on time is a major priority and I am committed to that.  Ten minutes before the meeting, I got a call from the Johnson account which we've also agreed is vital.  Just to clarify, can we review how you want to handle a call like that in the future?”.

2.  Gather Information: Ask questions without buying into accusations--after making acknowledging statements:  “Absolutely, absolutely!  Avoiding bad publicity for the company is a major concern, can you review with me your understanding of how this happened?  By emphasizing “your”, you establish interest in the boss' interests and, at the same time, that there's another different and potentially valid view--all without confrontation  Later, you will be better able to defend yourself or, perhaps, simply to establish in the boss' mind that you are aware of his/her priorities and are clear on steps to take in the future.

3.  Don't answer accusatory, demanding questions.   Paradoxically, if you attempt to answer demanding questions prematurely, the other person won't feel you've heard the intensity of their concerns; and there is a danger for you of feeling that you are abandoning your dignity by jumping to someone's angry tune.  With a boss, it may seem necessary to give a quick answer to a question initially, but even in such circumstances it is usually possible to insert a question before answering; this accomplishes several things:  a) you aren't immediately dancing to the boss' tune so you may feel better about yourself and b) you gain valuable information otherwise clouded by emotion.

4.  Suggest alternative solutions but only after several acknowledging and reflecting statements have calmed the person sufficiently.  This presupposes, as discussed elsewhere that you have prepared several specific plans that are acceptable to you.  

5.  Plan for objections & Handle common objections upfront:  Whether with family or the boss, identify ahead of time repetitive complaints that are most difficult for you not to react to.  Write these out and prepare three alternative responses for each one--always starting with some acknowledgment.  If you know that some objection will definitely be raised, address it upfront.  E.g.:  “I need to ask for a schedule change. I know it must be crazy making to change one person's schedule and have to juggle 10 others, with my proposal the only change is...”.  This establishes empathy for the emotional “problem” that your boss faces as well as the practical issue.

6.  Finalize agreements:  Ask directly if the boss will agree to a specific suggestion:  “Will you agree, then, to ....?”.  Consider writing a memo later with a summary of your meeting and a statement of your version of the agreements.

7.  Responding to anger directed at you by a boss.  Again, all of the tools above may come into play.  Acknowledge and ask questions first before answering accusations.  One more advanced technique is to verbally and non-verbally dissociate yourself from the “cause” position; that is, remove yourself from the polarizing dynamic which highly directive anger presupposes.
     Anger at you is based on the premise that you are the cause and the angry person has been on the receiving end or at the effect of your actions.  Picture yourself sitting across from an angry person who you react to with rebuttals and irritation.  In effect, they say “you did it” and you say “Oh, no I didn't it”-a virtual ping-pong match!  Now imagine moving physically to the side of their body or off to the side of where you had been sitting, point down at the desk where some paper work or policy statement lays, and say, “You know, that kind of stuff is so upsetting and it really does need to be addressed.”  This maneuver physically removes you from the “cause” position.  It removes the pong from the ping-pong dynamic, so to speak.  Not a substitute for honestly owning up to failure, but a strategy to defuse blame or a style of blame that isn't appropriate.

Internal Skills For Conflicts

1.  Most people only state what they don't want.  That leaves the responsibility, the work, and the power to the supervisor to dream up the solution. First, you must decide what you want as a solution in specific “sensory-based” detail.  Sensory-based detail includes what it will look like, sound like, and/or feel like.  Here's a simple example: Instead of simply recognizing that you want to cut back an intense work schedule, outline three alternative schedules with specific starting and quitting times and a proposed date to begin the new schedule. The principle is the same in more complex matters.  Consider someone who feels they have unfairly received a reprimand and a change in job duties from an immediate supervisor.  Going into a meeting with that supervisor's boss, it is important to establish for yourself what outcome(s) you want: i.e.:  I want the boss to review the specific sequence of events with me by examining some company documents (time cards, logs for machine use, etc.) and follow my step by step analysis of who had the responsibility.  Further, I want my former responsibilities back and to maintain a good working atmosphere with my supervisor. Those are the goals, achieving them is the less direct process of negotiating and communicating outlined on these pages.

2. Relax!  Stop polarizing dynamics from crystallizing.  But how to relax when your job feels threatened?  In the face of any threat, it is a reflex to step back or lean away as if to keep out of harm's way. This is fine when in physical danger, but otherwise it feeds the “blame game” of an angry person or may keep you in the “one down” position.  As an alternative try this experiment--lean forward; while staying completely relaxed, use the verbal techniques above; or lean forward and position your body alongside of the boss, as if you're on the same team.  This establishes concern and discourages polarizing dynamics from forming.

3. The willingness to have a loss and to grieve if necessary is the secret weapon of assertiveness. Many people readily boast what they'll tell the boss, but then roll over easily from fear of losing their job. In other words, they've established the ideas of what they want, but need to face the emotional reality of their own bottom line-at what point will they agree to stay and/or walk away.  Feel into the emotions of accepting the losses that may come with the different possible scenarios resulting from the meeting.  Unless you know your bottom line, cognitively and emotionally, you are more likely to be left flapping in the wind of the situation.  
4.  Outline a negotiating strategy:  Articulate your priorities to yourself and consider what you are willing to give to get what you want.  See the section on Setting Agreements And Negotiating for further elaboration.