What we fight about when we fight about staplers
Today I was going to post something about the danger of constructive feedback and the conflicts caused by it, but then this story broke:
Easter egg row: Church of England accuses National Trust of ‘airbrushing’ religion out of children’s egg hunt
Yes, here we are. Again. Every year on this little island of ours we like to take a moment or two to imagine that the mainstream majority; the white, Christian, “ordinary people” of this nation are under attack by broadly defined forces that seek to take away our national identity. The War on Christmas is what we go on about in November and December when we find that a handful of places are using terms like “winter festival” instead hanging up signs that say “Today your saviour was born! Celebrate by accruing expensive credit card debt!” And now, apparently, it’s time for the War on Easter. Which, of course, isn’t happening.
Over the Easter period, when the last few pagans in the UK sit around and grumble about cultural appropriation, the press will be awash with stories like this one which attempt to build the narrative that our country is under attack. Our country, which is largely Christian, which has a head of state who is bound to defend Christianity, in which our Prime Minister speaks openly about her Christian faith, and where we have special seats in the House of Lords for leaders of the Church of England but no other religious group, is being bullied by lefty liberal, PC-gone-mad, atheistic humanist types who are making Christians afraid to admit that they’re Christians.
This reminds me of the other national whinge wherein people who won’t stop talking about immigration insist on telling everyone who will listen that they’re not allowed to talk about immigration. One wonders how much they would talk about it if they felt free to do so.
It would take about five minutes and access to Google to discover that Cadbury has not removed mention of Easter from their annual egg hunt. But that would be missing the point. You see, it’s not actually about Easter.
And that is why this conflict will never be resolved. And how all of the above relates to what you’re actually here to learn about; how to have more useful conflicts in the workplace.How to have more useful conflicts in the workplaceClick To Tweet
When people talk about immigration and how they aren’t allowed to talk about it, and when they spread nonsense about how Christmas and Easter are under attack from vaguely defined dark forces, they know, on some level, that these things aren’t true. The problem is that they lack the emotional maturity to see clearly and admit the things that they are really upset about. You see, these wars are proxy wars.
Just like how a husband and wife might fight about something trivial like the colour of the wallpaper in the spare bedroom because, deep down, they have more important issues they’re unconsciously trying to ignore, those who fight these nationalistic proxy wars are deeply afraid of something more fundamental: their own sense of identity and self-worth.
This is the centre of all of our unending conflicts, when you really stop and think about it. People who are happy, secure, content in themselves, tend not to cause or take part in arguments. So when we fight about trivial things what we’re really doing is screaming for someone to make us feel whole. The trivial thing is a distraction.
In the workplace, we see similarly unending conflicts about often trivial things. When people feel insecure they latch on to minor quibbles, things they can grok more easily, like parking spaces, stationary, and who keeps leaving the unwashed coffee cups in the communal kitchen area. If we take these conflicts to be the true issue we find that they are never resolved. These conflicts must remain because their job is not to be resolved but to distract from the real problem.
So, what do we need to do about this?
- Realise that trivial issues are trivial issues and do not mistake then for the real question that needs to be resolved.
- If you are the person on the receiving end of some trivial diatribe or other, remain mindful of the fact that the thing you’re being shouted at about is not what you need to engage with (this is very hard),
- If you are the person who feels like delivering a trivial diatribe, become aware of the fact that this isn’t the thing you really care about and begin working to let go of it (this is even harder).
- Start to build a workplace where people feel safe to be honest with themselves and with everyone else about their real insecurities.
Many workplace conflicts, much like our Easter War nonsense above, would be ended quickly if one side could say to the other “I’m angry because I’m afraid that I don’t matter and that my contribution isn’t valued. I feel insecure and I really want someone to tell me that I’m important.”
Ask yourself, how openly could you share such a sentiment in your workplace? And imagine how others must feel. Is this why you keep fighting about who should reload the printer?
So far we’ve focused on how to avoid the trivial conflicts but the flip side of this is more interesting and more fun. You see, when you learn to avoid the trivial stuff you can really let fly about the things that matter.When you learn to avoid the trivial stuff you can really let fly about the things that matterClick To Tweet
A place where trivial conflicts don’t happen is one in which we’re all secure enough to argue about the things that matter. You see, when people are content and secure in themselves not only will they offer more outlandish and daring ideas to the world, they will be able to engage in honest conflict about those things without attaching their own sense of self-worth to them.
I am not always entirely secure. In fact, sometimes I feel like, if my work is poor, then I am a worthless person. This is a struggle I face daily. When I find it hard to write, when I fail to land a new client, I can begin to feel like I’m literally worth less. And in those times I become intractable when it comes to the content of my work. You see, when I am unhappy about me, my work becomes about me. Any criticism or disagreement about my work is a direct attack on my person.
The alternative is also true. When I am happy about me my work is just my work. I can criticise it, and others can attack it. I don’t see those attacks as attacks on me. I am Aran and I am great! So whether you love my work or not doesn’t change that. Which of course is wonderfully freeing because I can get into deep and complicated discussions about the work with no fear of undermining my self-worth.
Sadly, the workplace of today could have been designed to make people conflate their work with their self-worth. We value and reward people entirely based on their personal contribution even though it is impossible in team environments to correctly discern the contributions of one person or another. Instead, we default to offering the regurgitated praise to the chick who squawks loudest. In our workplaces, people literally are worth less if their work is seen as less good. So arguments become trivial. And we’re back to the mess left in the communal microwave again.