Accountability in conflict

A large part of my job is helping people to understand their part in conflict. Conflict at work can happen at any time and it’s easy to for it to become a big deal.

Usually, but not always, conflict situations at work take two people for them to become a conflict. It’s rare that conflict is down to one person only, and when it is that’s likely disciplinary or grievance territory. This post is about two-person conflict.

What’s your 1%?

Accountability is hard. It’s hard to reflect on a situation where, let’s be honest, you maybe haven’t been at your best, or you’ve found difficult, or was downright unfair. Understanding your part can be pretty painful and that’s why it’s such an important step. I find it helpful to approach it from an angle of “ok, it was 99% on this person, but what small thing did I contribute to this situation”. In reality, my part has never only been 1%, but framing it like this helps me to start being accountable. I do this with people I work with to – their part might be 1% and it might be 99%, it’s not about divvying up the blame, it’s about opening up a conversation.

Maybe the accountability in a situation is 50/50, maybe it’s 99/1. An important step in resolving conflict is being accountable for your part – even if it’s that 1% – and demonstrating that by showing ownership, ideally with an apology. For me, an apology is a demonstration of accountability and it goes a long way to rebuild a bridge.

How do you apologise?

The following are not apologies:
1. I’m sorry if you felt I was being unfair
2. I’m sorry if you thought I was annoyed
3. Basically anything that starts with “I’m sorry if”

Take out the “I’m sorry if” and you’re left with statements that put the blame on the other person, and don’t show any accountability.

Instead try:
1. I’m so sorry that I worded what I said badly and that it’s had an impact on you. It’s not OK that what I did made you feel like that
2. I’m sorry that my tone was off. I was feeling frustrated by the conversation, but it wasn’t OK that I expressed it like that.
3. I’m sorry I reacted so poorly when you gave me that feedback. I found it difficult to hear and I had a hard time processing it, so I lashed out.

All of the above suggestions work fine without an apology too, it just depends on your level of conflict and resulting pain:

1. Reflecting on this, I can see that I worded what I said badly and that it’s had an impact on you. It’s not OK that what I did made you feel like that.
2. In hindsight, my tone was off. I was feeling frustrated by the conversation, but it wasn’t OK that I expressed it like that.
3. I’ve realised that I reacted poorly when you gave me that feedback. I found it difficult to hear and I had a hard time processing it, so I lashed out.

Apologising doesn’t excuse behaviour

It’s important to understand that apologising for your part in conflict isn’t the same as accepting the other person’s behaviour. Problematic behaviour is problematic behaviour, and that’s dealt with by feedback. Sometimes you can give that person feedback directly, sometimes you’ll need help from your manager, their manager, or someone from HR.

On seniority

Remember that the more senior you are, the more you need to model the behaviours you want to see in your organisation. Sometimes that means being the first person to show accountability.

Accountability in conflict

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