As women, we need to know how to manage conflict in the workplace in a way that will improve our chances for success.
I can still hear my mother’s voice from my childhood, “You’d be perfect if you didn’t have a mouth.” Like most girls, I was taught to “be a nice girl”, to “act like a lady”, and to “mind my manners”. Fortunately, the lessons that Mom tried to teach me didn’t stick as much as she would have liked.
I was the kid who loved to debate and negotiate everything with my parents, which has served me well as an adult in terms of self-advocacy. When it comes to conflict in the workplace, however, assertiveness is generally not viewed as a positive trait for women.
Research shows that women are penalized when expressing behavior outside of “normal” gender roles. Women are expected to be warm and nurturing while men are expected to be strong and assertive.
This study shows that women’s perceived competency drops by 35% when they are judged as being “forceful” or “assertive.”
Conflict in the workplace is natural and can spur positive outcomes such as creativity and innovation. But there continue to be fundamental differences between how men and women are socialized and viewed that require some serious conscious unraveling and intentional change. I believe that this will take many, many, many generations.
In the meantime, it is critical that, as women, we know how to manage conflict in the workplace in a way that will improve our chances for success.
There are a plethora of great books that give guidance on dealing with conflict, such as (in order of my preference): Nonviolent Communication, Fierce Conversations, The Joy of Conflict, Crucial Conversations, and Difficult Conversations.
While these books give extremely valuable perspectives and tools, they don’t specifically call out the differences in which women approach conflict. Not only are women socialized differently, but we also are penalized if we are perceived as using the same approach a man would use during contentious situations. While I think this is patently unfair, it’s a current reality.
Following are my tips on how to manage conflict as a woman. This is not intended to replace the extremely valuable information in the books mentioned above, but instead compliment them.
How to stop acting like the nice girl and become an empowered woman:
Avoidance is Not a Cure
According to Audrey Nelson, PhD and Claire Damken Brown, PhD, many women chose conflict avoidance as a strategy for conflict because they do not want to be seen as aggressive or confrontational.
Ignoring an issue to be the “nice girl” is not an effective way to resolve it. Most often, the conflict will not go away and it can also get worse.
You might try to tell yourself to let it go and forget it, but that’s easier said than done. Typically, the feelings don’t go away and will show up as repressed feelings and unprocessed emotion that comes back in a dysfunctional form. Trust me, this isn’t healthy.
Even if you are able to let it go, this doesn’t mean that the issue goes away. Often, when someone does something that you consider disrespectful, and you don’t correct this person, they will think their behavior is acceptable and continue to do it.
You may think conflict avoidance is easier, but it’s a recipe for disaster in the long term. Don’t give your power away, take steps to deal with the issue before it gets any larger. Get help from others if you need it, just don’t ignore it.
Own Your Issues and Leave the Rest Behind
According to gender expert Dr. Deborah Kolb of the Simmons School of Management, women are often the “peacemakers” of their organizations.
We become tangled up in other people’s conflicts because we are often a sympathetic ear for others to offload their struggles out of loyalty, sympathy or simply friendship. We’re then at risk of internalizing these burdens as our own.
We need to be clear about what are our issues and what are their issues.
If you struggle with this, first acknowledge that you may have a strong value of loyalty. This is great and it also means that you may need to create boundaries of who you will allow to come to you. You do not need to be your organization’s peacemaker. Each individual needs to own their own issues.
Stop Disrespecting Yourself; You Are Not a Victim
In conflict, when the flight versus fight mode kicks in, women tend to be passive in the workplace.
Even women who are not normally passive may tend to do this at work. After years of working, we may have subconsciously learned that it’s easier if we are liked at work.
According to Gary Harper in his book, The Joy of Conflict, “When we remain passive in conflict we suppress our opinions and needs and feel like the victim.” This is when thoughts of “What if I’m not liked?” or “It’s not that big of a deal?” may flash in our heads, when it is, in fact, a big deal.
Even when we say something, we tend to deliver it so tentatively and apologetically that others don’t take us seriously. How can we expect them to? If we don’t make our needs important and state them as such, no one else will.
Speaking up is a critical step towards respecting ourselves and expecting others to do so as well. It moves us from victimhood to empowerment.
Get Clear on You
Before speaking up, it’s important to “get clear on you”.
We tend to have filters that make it a challenge to clearly see what we’re feeling and what we want. We may be carrying other people’s burdens, or we get stuck in the “should” trap, which can lead to guilt. We might be beating ourselves up, taking on blame, or fear what will happen. This is all in addition to the pain of the actual conflict or issue.
It’s a lot to process and may take some time to get clear on what you really want.
Create time and space to go somewhere you can be quiet and be kind to yourself.
Give yourself empathy. Talk to yourself the same way you would a young child or a good friend.
Ask yourself what you’re feeling, and what needs are associated with those feelings. What are your assumptions – about yourself, about the other person, about the situation? What do you really want? What is a healthy outcome?
This may take time. And you may need to first write out all of the mean and ugly things about the other person or situation first – get it out, don’t filter or edit. You don’t have to share any of this, but you do need to get it out in order to fully release it and get to the deeper layers that are authentically you.
BONUS: When you have fully processed and gotten clear on you, ask yourself what you think the other person is feeling and what their version is of the same situation.
Nice Girl to Bitch, in the Flip of a Switch
Now that you’re ready to speak up, you know what your issue is (not anyone else’s), and are clear on how you feel and what you want, you need to know how to speak up.
We aren’t given a lot of wiggle room, we are labeled quickly from one extreme to the other (with “nice” being the most neutral, which still takes a lot of work to maintain).
It may feel like a no-win situation.
To change this, more conversation is needed, not less. Start by naming what’s going on. More explicitly, name what you are trying to accomplish and be direct.
In this VitalSmart study, three phrases were recommended to reduce the negative perception of women in conflict.
- Behavior Phrase: “I’m going to express my opinion very directly; I’ll be as specific as possible.”
- Value Phrase: “I see this as a matter of honesty and integrity, so it’s important for me to be clear about where I stand.”
- Inoculation Phrase: “I know it’s a risk for a woman to speak this assertively, but I’m going to express my opinion very directly.”
Above all, remember three things 1) we all make mistakes and deserve forgiveness (especially self-forgiveness) 2) we are complex beings with feelings that we don’t always understand in the moment, and 3) we have all contributed to the conflict or problem in some way.
Do you need a partner to work through a conflict? Do you feel like you’ve taken the steps above and you still aren’t feeling empowered? Do you struggle with how to be clear on what you want and how to say it? If so, I’m here for you.