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

Thoughts on leading during a pandemic

A few weeks ago, I was adjusting to leading during a global pandemic and got some advice from my coach. I wrote up a post after my session, which I shared with a number of my colleagues – all leaders in technology. I’ve been meaning to write this up into a more comprehensive post, but that hasn’t happened. I think a slightly tweaked version is enough though. Perfect is the enemy of good, and all that

We’re all doing difficult jobs in difficult times at the moment, and I wanted to share some thoughts I’ve had about just how tough some of our challenges are right now.

Overnight, our priorities as humans and also as employees have changed. We need to recognise that and adapt to it. It’s important that we understand the context in which we’re working in these unprecedented times.

My coach shared a quote with me that’s really illustrated that for me. I find it extremely motivating, but it’s OK if you find it a little terrifying.

In this moment, you don’t get a pass. Either you’re going to be a great leader or you’re not. There’s no business as usual and you can’t go back to how things were.

This is leadership in “expert” mode and it’s the kind of experience that can forge incredible, resilient leaders. It’s also an experience that can break us if we’re not resilient or don’t support each other. And resilience here is not just the ability to bounce back but also to have the optimism that you can come back. 

This is a really important time for us – as humans, as employees and as leaders. It’s critical that we face the challenges that we’re seeing with courage, compassion and optimism, while also taking care of ourselves and those around us. It’s a big ask so it’s important that we’re honest with ourselves about where we are and what we’re finding difficult. 

It’s also important to understand that we can hold two conflicting states at the same time: You can be a good leader in a crisis, and you can also be struggling to deal with the crisis. It’s OK to feel like this, many of us do. Acknowledge it at a minimum, embrace it if you can and talk about it. You might help someone else to understand their own conflict.

Remember that we make choices about what we do every day, and we can to choose to be great leaders. We can choose to lean in to hard stuff, choose to develop and grow, and to support those around us.

Thoughts on leading during a pandemic

Giving feedback

I’m often asked by people how they can give someone else feedback. Whether it’s negative feedback that someone needs to improve, or positive feedback complementing someone on a positive action, I get asked this so often that I thought it was easier to post it.

So here it is. I’m no expert on feedback, and what’s below has worked for me. It might not work for you, and that’s ok.

Where to start

With all feedback, positive or negative, there are two ways that I usually use and recommend for giving feedback

1) Situation, Behaviour, Impact (SBI)

  • Describe the situation. For example: When we were in the planning meeting the other day
  • Describe the behaviour. For example: You were thoroughly prepared and were able to present your stories quickly and coherently
  • Describe the impact or affect: For example: This meant we could get consensus on your items and move along quickly. It helped to keep the meeting running smoothly

2) Action, Impact, Do (AID)

  • Describe the action the person took: In today’s planning meeting, your tickets weren’t in the correct state on the board
  • Describe the impact or affect that this action had: This meant that you had to spend time updating the tickets, which slowed the meeting down
  • Make a request for something they can do differently: Next time, please can you come to the meeting with your tickets up to date.

Things to avoid

1) Judgement

Try to state only the facts and remove judgement from your statements. For example, the feedback above could be reworded with judgement: “You weren’t prepared for today’s planning meeting. Next time, please come prepared and make sure your tickets are up to date.“ The judgement in this sentence is “you weren’t prepared” – you’d be making an assumption which may not be true. Stick to the facts only

2) Hyperbole

“Your work is always excellent” This might be nice to hear, but doesn’t contain any information for the person. Think about what they’ve done that make them seem “excellent”. Try to be specific, for example “your code is high quality, great work” or “You were so helpful when you facilitated that conversation and it really helped us to get consensus”

3) Taking too long

This is especially important for criticism or negative feedback. It should happen as soon as possible, but ideally privately.

4) Not taking ownership

Say “I”. “I noticed”, “I felt”, “I saw”. This means you’re taking ownership of the feedback and the person you’ve giving feedback to can have a meaningful conversation about it.

5) Being vague

Before you give feedback, spend some time prepping and understand exactly what it is you’re telling someone. If someone has given you feedback as a manager and you want to pass it on, make sure you are absolutely clear about what you’re hearing and what you’re going to say. Don’t make people guess what you’re saying, and don’t make them investigate to find out more.

Giving feedback