Grappling with seemingly unreasonable people in the workplace is a costly global problem. As part of a six-year study we conducted on organizational effectiveness, we surveyed more than 750 people at 500 companies worldwide. According to our findings, the majority of today’s employees (84 per cent in our research) must regularly deal with what they consider unreasonable counterparts when trying to do their jobs (with 55 per cent saying this happens sometimes and 28 per cent calling it a frequent problem). When faced with conflicting opinions, one in four of our study participants reported that people within their organizations predominantly relied on manipulation or coercion to get their way.
In addition to increasing turnover, toxic work relationships reduce employee productivity and engagement by increasing employee dissatisfaction, stress, anxiety, and depression. And the collective price of work-related conflicts is staggering. Indeed, according to “Estimating the costs of workplace conflict”—a 2021 paper by Richard Saundry, a professor at the University of Sheffield Management School, and Peter Urwin, a University of Westminster professor—the price paid by British businesses alone comes to about £28.5 billion annually.
The cost of employee conflicts in other countries could be much higher since the United Kingdom scored relatively well in a study on the topic conducted prior to the global financial crisis. After examining workplace conflicts in nine countries (Belgium, Brazil, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, The Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States), CPP released a 2008 report that noted employees across all jurisdictions studied spent an average of 2.1 hours per week or approximately one day per month dealing with a conflict either directly or indirectly. But the British average was 1.8 hours per week wasted on conflict while the averages in the United States and Germany were 2.8 and 3.3, respectively.
Conflict between employees appears to have declined during the COVID-19 pandemic. But as Saundry and Urwin noted last year, “as working life returns to some form of new normality in 2021, it is likely that insecurity, rapid change and continuing economic pressures will lead to a re-surfacing of conflict between individuals.” And the last thing that businesses need today is another thing challenging productivity, not to mention pushing employees to quit.
The good news is that people often misread each other. Indeed, aside from the rare pathological outlier, the vast majority of individuals that we find difficult to influence are not inherently unreasonable. We are social creatures, so while self-interest and some degree of selfishness are part of our nature, these less-than-noble impulses are typically kept in check by our desire to be seen by others as reasonable and fair dealing. Most people genuinely want to do the right thing at work providing it doesn’t require sacrificing careers. The issue is that reasonable people often act in ways that make sense to them, but often seem unreasonable, selfish, or even irrational to others.
The other good news is that when companies understand this and proactively work to resolve workplace conflict through joint problem-solving, they are 3.9 times more likely to report that personal differences fuel learning and innovation rather than conflict.
This article aims to help organizations turn employee conflicts into a positive force, which requires effectively navigating a challenging workplace terrain by creating a culture in which colleagues strive to see others with the same degree of empathy as they see themselves.
Abraham Lincoln famously said, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” That’s an attitude that any organization seeking to navigate uncertainty and constant change should strive to cultivate, fostering an environment where different perspectives serve as a catalyst for curiosity, rather than a trigger for conflict. This is critical because it helps break the cycle of mutual dismissal that arises when people simply assume anyone with a different opinion must be ill-informed, selfishly motivated, or both (see the IBJ Insight “Navigating Change”).
Human beings are complicated and there aren’t a lot of saints walking around amongst us. Most of us act out of a complex set of motivations, including, but not limited to, narrow self-interest. We care about receiving recognition, getting bonuses, receiving promotions. Incentives like these inevitably shape our own views and actions, just as they do for others, often to a degree that we fail to fully recognize or acknowledge. As a result, expecting selfless behaviour from our colleagues is bound to leave us frustrated, taken advantage of, or both.
That said, most of us want to act with integrity and generally strive to do the right thing — even if we often disagree about what that is. But human beings are prone to binary thinking, and when confronted with different points of view, the natural and almost inevitable reaction is to conclude we are right, and the other side is wrong.
People also generally see themselves as acting reasonably, if not always nobly. But we don’t always recognize that others see themselves and their actions the same way. When we don’t live up to our highest ideals, we often say to ourselves, “I was forced by circumstances (and particularly by the actions of others) to behave differently than I would have preferred.” But we don’t always cut others that kind of slack. Instead, we attribute their behaviour to flaws in their character that prevent them from being “a team player.”
Psychologists refer to this as “fundamental attribution error.” (Speaking of biases that distort how we see ourselves versus others, respondents in our study were 3.5 times more likely to report their own influence skills as “excellent” compared to their colleagues.)
Simply put, because we are human, divergence in thinking often produces debate, then argument, which rapidly escalates into a “cycle of mutual dismissal.” That’s why influencing people we see as “unreasonable” starts with recognizing that those we consider to be ill-informed or selfish almost certainly do not see themselves that way.
Consider the scenario below:
Lee’s team has spent months gathering data and creating a business case for a new initiative. He has just shared this work with Taylor, his counterpart in another department, whose buy-in and support he needs. But Taylor says, “I have concerns. The data I’ve seen indicate the market isn’t as strong as you seem to think. And this initiative might result in us losing current customers.”
How does Lee react? With an open mind, curious to hear more from Taylor and learn from her different perspective? Or with frustration that the support and assistance he needs is not immediately forthcoming, and perhaps with a degree of defensiveness?
“Look Taylor, you haven’t spent all the time we have considering this from all angles. Our market analysis is sound, I can assure you.” Perhaps Lee also thinks to himself “You just don’t like the idea because it didn’t come out of your department, and you don’t want my team and me to get the recognition, and extra funding, instead of you.”
How does Taylor react? Is she open to reconsidering her initial skepticism? Or does she conclude that Lee is reacting defensively because he is ego-invested in his proposed initiative, and thus lacks objectivity? Taylor (sighing inwardly) responds “Look Lee. We’re on the same side here. I’m just trying to make sure the company doesn’t commit significant resources to an initiative that’s likely to fail. And honestly, I don’t want you to end up owning that kind of failure.”
Lee and Taylor have fallen into the “cycle of mutual dismissal.” Each believes the other is wrong, and increasingly, sees the other as acting in less than good faith. The more they each respond to one another based on this perspective, the more their actions reinforce their perceptions of one another. If they have a good relationship, they might nip this dynamic in the bud, or dial it back before things get toxic. They might simply agree to disagree. Or maybe they reach some sort of compromise where Taylor provides less support to Lee than he wants but does not actively oppose his initiative. That’s the best case—versus ongoing conflict and a damaged relationship. But papering over possibly important differences does nothing to generate learning that might improve Lee’s plan, or ensure that the two of them, and others, make a wise decision about whether the company should invest resources in this new initiative.
Using Differences in Opinion to Fuel Innovation
In every organization (and especially large ones), individuals have specialized jobs — hence differential knowledge, and different priorities. As a result, it’s tempting to attribute disagreement and resistance from others to their lack of comprehension, competence, or commitment.
But seemingly unreasonable counterparts have access to information we don’t. They have different experiences and see things from different vantage points. Their objections and criticism, no matter how unconstructively articulated, are precious assets. Even the most self-interested resistance usually contains nuggets of insight — about potential risks, possible alternatives, and other opportunities. Instead of digging in our heels, we need to dig into a learning conversation, to embrace dissent rather than overcome objections, and uncover such nuggets, no matter how deeply buried or well-disguised they might be.
At some point, however, learning must give way to decisions and actions. We’ve all still got our jobs to do, and results to deliver, and we need support and help from others. So, how do we get it?
Paradoxical as it might seem, we need to stop thinking of influence as trying to get others to agree with us, and instead as a process of joint exploration and problem-solving. Especially in complex organizations with myriad competing priorities, influence cannot be a one-way street. The following chart highlights how our assumptions and behaviour shift when we reconceive influence as a joint, problem-solving activity.
Returning to our hypothetical protagonists, when Taylor raises concerns with Lee’s plan to expand in a new market, how should they avoid fueling the cycle of mutual dismissal? A conversation focused on joint problem-solving opens the door to more creative thinking and better decision-making.
Lee might still suspect that Taylor is, in part, motivated by self-interest and competition for company resources. But he also reminds himself that she likely also cares (at least a bit) about what’s good for the company. Moreover, regardless of motivation, there might well be merit in her concerns. “OK Taylor. Tell me more about your view of the market, and what I might be missing here,” Lee says.
Ideally, Taylor responds with a combination of empathy and humility. As skeptical as she is of Lee’s plan, she holds out the possibility he might be onto something. Knowing that her questions and concerns could easily trigger defensiveness, she thinks hard about how to raise them in a way that will be easier for Lee to hear. She avoids leading questions with an accusatory edge — “Have you thought about how disruptive this will be for our current customers?” Instead, Taylor leads with a focus on common ground — but without pretending there’s not disagreement. “If your analysis is right, Lee — and I’m currently skeptical — this is a major opportunity and one we all need to get behind. But I’m worried about existing customers getting confused and frustrated. What’s your team’s best current thinking on how to ensure that doesn’t happen?”
Lee shares some ideas, and since he no longer perceives Taylor as a blocker and adversary, it seems natural to ask her for her reactions to what he has shared, and to ask for other suggestions she might have. Sell-and-resist influence dynamics have been replaced by joint problem-solving. Rather than spiraling into the cycle of mutual dismissal, Lee and Taylor find themselves in a virtuous cycle where their differences become the fuel for creative thinking.
Maybe this discussion produces a better go-to-market plan. Or perhaps Lee does conclude that entering this new market indeed is too risky. If so, he is able to reach this conclusion because it no longer feels tantamount to admitting error (or even incompetence) and being on the losing side of an argument with Taylor. Or just maybe, a collaborative, side-by-side conversation produces an entirely new plan for growth — very different from both Lee’s original plan and Taylor’s prior thinking.
When such collaboration goes beyond individual actors and pervades a company’s culture, and a joint problem-solving approach to influence is routinely employed, our research finds that people are able to learn from disagreement, make better decisions, and develop innovative solutions. Individuals in our study who reported that joint problem-solving (versus, selling, manipulation, or coercion) was the most common style of influence at their organization were 3.9 times more likely to report that differences are a significant source of learning and innovation, rather than a source of conflict and inefficiency.
Even in less collaborative work environments, we can and should cultivate new ways of thinking about influence and new ways of acting to influence others. If we respond to others as if they are unreasonable adversaries, we will inevitably encourage more adversarial and seemingly unreasonable behaviour. Alternatively, if we engage those whose views and behaviour seems irrational or selfish with respect and curiosity, we will, at an absolute minimum, gain some useful insights. And far more often than not, when we treat counterparts as if they were rational and well-intentioned (even when they seem not be), we will find that they respond to us in ways that are much more reasonable and collaborative. In the short term, we will immediately increase our ability to influence the thinking and behaviour of others. Over time, we will help to replace the cycle of mutual dismissal with a virtuous cycle of collaboration.
Vantage analyst David Lin contributed to the research for this article.