When we’re in conflict with someone, our view of them can become distorted. Rather than seeing them as a whole person who has some strengths and some weaknesses, our view narrows down. They become a caricature to us, with certain unflattering features highlighted and accentuated.
When we work with someone, we see the output of what’s going on in their world. Then we make our own inferences about the output that leads us to having a story about them.
The problem with these caricatures is that they drive how we behave, think about, and act toward the person we’re seeing in that way. And they can be quite persistent. The psychological phenomenon of confirmation bias comes into play here. Once we have a belief about something, we tend to see the data that confirms our existing belief. And we tend to discount or not even notice disconfirming data. This is something we can all fall into, because it’s how our brains sort out what to pay attention to. To counteract confirmation bias, we have to take an active stance, a curious view that says, “Let me look for data that’s different from what I’m already thinking.”
With colleagues, confirmation bias may get in the way of our seeing how someone is being helpful, when they are stepping up, and when they’re contributing.
When there is conflict on a team, this can become particularly problematic. Members of the team can easily begin to create a collective distorted story about someone or some subgroup on the team. This is the dynamic of scapegoating. People may contribute to this dynamic in different ways. Sometimes it’s through gossip. Other times it’s strategizing together about the other person. The conversations may not be malicious. They may be well-intentioned. But the result is a distorted picture that’s incomplete – a sketch that doesn’t fully account for who they are or what’s happening in the situation.
There are some things you can do to head-off this dynamic on your team.
First, become aware of your thinking. Notice your biases and distortions that may be getting in the way of seeing your colleague fully. What’s the picture you’ve painted of the other person, and how might that be getting in the way? Look for opportunities to fill in your picture with more detail – including what the situation may look like from the other person’s point of view.
Next, coach your team members to do the same. One of the ways that a team can keep someone sidelined is by having all of the interactions with that person go through the manager. People on the team will come to the manager to complain about the person. As the manager, it can be easy to get pulled in – to feel that you must step in and address the situation. Very occasionally that’s necessary, for example, if the concerns have to do with some kind of threat or harassment. But most of the time – the vast majority of the time – the concerns that are being brought to the manager do not require the manager to step in. Most of the time, employees can be coached to work through their challenges with one another directly.
Be especially watchful for conflict that’s zeroing in on one person, with a story that’s being told and reinforced by the group. When this happens, it’s especially important to support group members in undoing the caricatures they have created.
The more direct relationships people have with one another on a team, the more possibilities there are for collaboration. Creating productive working relationships requires that people move out of their biased views of one another. As a manager, you can support this by watching out for your own biases and coaching your colleagues to do the same.
For more ideas on how to lead your team effectively, particularly in these uncertain times, check out this free training.