How do you handle disagreement at work and what does that say about your level of maturity?

April 29, 2014

Think for a moment about a time when you disagreed strongly with a colleague. What was it like? How did you feel? What did you do? I’m thinking particularly about those situations where you can’t ‘agree to disagree’; you have to come up with an agreed course of action. These situations tend to occur most in your family life and at work. You and your partner can’t agree to disagree about where to go on holiday or which house to buy. Similarly, at work there are times when you need to reach a decision with others – which of these candidates should we select? Should we take this potentially lucrative but high risk opportunity? The way you approach these situations says more about you, and your level of emotional maturity, than you may realise.

A solid sense of self

We are all affected by other people. It is part of what it means to be human – ‘no man is an island’ and all that. But how affected we are, is a measure of our emotional development. One branch of psychology calls this ‘differentiation’ – the process of developing a solid sense of yourself. Well-differentiated people recognise their dependence on others, but can stay calm and clear headed enough in the face of conflict or criticism to do what they believe to be the right thing. Poorly differentiated people are much more reactive to the responses of others.

Lack of differentiation is easiest to spot in the compliant person. In the face of conflict and difference, you lose yourself and give in to what others want. It’s easier and less anxiety-provoking to give up your own wishes and needs than to face the disapproval of people who matter to you (or in extreme cases, the disapproval of anyone).

My way or the highway

So does that mean that the people who won’t give up their position and get others to comply with them are more differentiated? Well, not necessarily. If your sense of yourself is reliant on other people agreeing with you and on getting your own way, then you’re just the flipside of the compliant types. If you take dissent or disagreement as ‘disrespect’, then you’re making other people’s opinions mean something about you, when actually theImagey’re just their opinions. ‘You’re either for me or against me’ is not the hallmark of strong leadership. It’s a sign of a fragile ego that needs to be propped up by the agreement (i.e. approval) of others. Incidentally, your way might be right. But if you need to impose it, just how certain are you?

It’s often harder (even for themselves) to spot that these people are anxious as the first place they go in the face of disagreement is anger – or sulking, which is, of course, just unexpressed anger. But underneath that there is generally anxiety. If you find yourself enraged because someone disagrees with you, it’s worth asking yourself what you’re making it mean about you.

Don’t fence me in

So what about those rugged individualists who plough their own furrow? They’re the most differentiated of the lot, right? Well, probably not. Remember, no man is an island. It’s not that difficult to maintain a solid sense of yourself when you’re on your own. There’s no one to contradict you. ImageBut if you lose that sense – or are afraid you will – when you’re with other people, then it’s not real. You may find it less anxiety-provoking to keep yourself separate and call yourself ‘doggedly independent’. It’s safer than letting anyone get too close or become too important but it’s not truly differentiated. The highly-differentiated person can maintain themselves whilst staying in contact with others.

Who cares?

Why should you care about some esoteric psychological concept? Because you’re not an island. Because even if, like me, you’re a one-person business, you still have to work with people. Other people, who won’t always agree with you. Let me give you an illustration. In a coaching session recently, a client was trying to work out ways he could get his team ‘on board’ with his plans. During the coaching, he realised that when his team challenged him, he bristled. He was getting into confrontations with them and accusing them of ‘disrespect’. Fairly new in his role, he took their challenges as a criticism of his competence, mirroring his own insecurities. Getting a grip on what was going on his head enabled him to handle these situations in a much more constructive way. The biggest battle he had was not with his team but with himself.

Challenging yourself to grow

Sometimes in life – and in work – we have to do things which are genuinely scary. But it is only through these that we grow, develop and become more effective. Which of these makes you break out in a cold sweat? Saying no to that really scary client/colleague? Admitting you don’t know what to do? Acknowledging a mistake? Letting someone else take control? Asking for help? Whatever it is, it’ll say something about the ways you protect yourself from anxiety and the steps you could take to develop further.

I see differentiation as a life-long process. Rather like enlightenment, few of us ever really get there; I certainly don’t claim to be Ms Differentiated myself. But the journey is worthwhile. The main struggle we have in life is not with other people, it’s with ourselves. The challenge is to use the situations that life – and work – throw at you all the time to develop the best of yourself. You have to do it yourself, but if you’d like some support along the way then do get in touch:

Incidentally, given that work and family are two of the main places which throw up these kinds of challenge, it’s not surprising that family businesses are fertile ground for developing a more solid sense of yourself in relation to people who matter to you. I’ll say more about that next time……….

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Photo credits

Fuzzy: Nicholas Suhor

Annoyed: Bark

Loner: h.koppdelaney

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