All of us go through problems in our career that are related to the kind of environment in which we work or the individuals with whom we work. In a lighter vein, most of the “adverse outcome pathways” (AOPs) are due to the way we react to a situation or due to our preconceived notion about others. The result could be detrimental not only to us but also to the other person or the entire team. So, how to manage conflict in a workplace? To navigate us through this, the Education-Career Development Session “Navigating Turbulent Waters: How to Address Conflict throughout Your Career” during the SOT 58th Annual Meeting and ToxExpo brought together speakers from diverse backgrounds who provided the audience with the right framework by which to abide.
The session was chaired by Dr. Manushree Bharadwaj, clinical pharmacologist at the US Food and Drug Administration, and co-chaired by Dr. Brita Kilburg-Basnyat, toxicology study director at Covance Inc. The first speaker of the session was Mary M. Mitchell, a renowned speaker and trainer in professional development, who spoke about civil skepticism and fair fighting. She started by quoting Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice of US Supreme Court, who said, “Don’t mistake politeness for lack of strength,” and explained her goal of this session was to provide a brief framework for doing this. She stressed the art of listening twice as much before we speak and how to devote our attention completely to the other person when they speak. “To be respectful” is an important part of this process, and good manners and etiquettes like being on time, addressing every coworker whom we come across in our workplace, and apologizing with authenticity and promptly whenever we mess up go a long way in making life easier. It is important to realize that we are apologizing for the “effect” of our behavior on someone else. It is also important to “tone it down” when we speak, and nonverbal communication is also crucial in conveying the message. She discussed how to avoid the “you’s” in every conflict conversation, which will lead to the other person becoming defensive. It is important to engage others in a dialogue rather than instigate them to build a defense. Mitchell also informed the audience how the word “but” in a conversation has a negative connotation because it erases everything that was said before. She advised to replace the word “but” with “yet.” She also stressed how important it is not to interrupt others when they speak, and “being reflective” is part of this process. All this leads to good manners, which create an atmosphere of respectful disagreement in which nobody feels that they are taking the brunt of the beating. Mitchell spoke about the “rubber band” theory, which reminds her of what behavior she wants to change or adopt, and practicing these behavioral responses is very essential to grow into them.
The next speaker was Dr. Dana Dolinoy, professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. She spoke about the concept of energizing and de-energizing relationships, and she shared the data that she had borrowed from her friend who, Dr. Dolinoy joked, is an expert on jerks in corporate America. The data indicated that about 7% of relationships in work are negative. What effects do “Dementors” (reference to Harry Potter) have in a workplace? They are the sort of people who consume happiness and spread coldness, darkness, misery, and despair. However, the good point is that less than 5% of people are Dementors or people who want to hurt others intentionally. In contrast, a survey of 25,000 employees from corporate organizations revealed that over 98% people have experienced toxic behavior at their workplace, and the impact of such behavior resulted in more than 80% saying they lost work time thinking about the problem, 78% said their commitment to the organization declined, 66% said their performance declined, 63% lost work time avoiding the offender, many others said the quality of work decreased, and over 10% left their job due to toxic behavior at the workplace. Dr. Dolinoy pointed out how people become toxic in their jobs due to stress and workload. She provided two case studies where one employee left the job, whereas the other was provided guidance and training, which helped in improving the person’s behavior, resulting in benefits to the team and in turn to the organization. Many times, it’s the peers or leaders who are the problem, and what can a leader do to improve their behavior? Leaders need to realize that they need to promote their own well-being, and this in turn affects the well-being of employees and trainees. Leaders should improve their network and extend that to their employees and trainees. How can an individual handle negative behavior? Dr. Dolinoy listed out a number of strategies, starting from trying to build up the energy to reengage and develop skills and to reach out to people who have common scientific interests.
Dr. Josh Henkin of STEM Career Services then took the stage to emphasize how to set clear expectations to manage workplace relationships. He spoke about the “Rock Game” that everyone plays or goes through with their boss, where the employee is not clear about what the boss expects and ends up delivering something that the boss is not happy with and has to go back and forth until he or she gets it right. So it is important to communicate with your boss right at the start by asking the right questions: What type of deliverable is required? What is the priority or importance? When is the deadline? These sort of questions give the employee a clear picture of what the boss expects, which will help in saving time and avoiding conflict. Dr. Henkin also spoke about the art of negotiation, and specifically about principled negotiation. There are four elements to this: (1) separate people from the problem, (2) focus on the interest (of the other party) and not the position (taking a stand), (3) invest in options for mutual gain, and (4) use objective criteria. He went on to explain the differences between maintaining a position in negotiation versus keeping in mind the interest of the negotiators. He quoted a few examples and cases to suggest that keeping the interest in mind is more beneficial in any negotiation.
The most crucial part of every workplace relationship is the kind of feedback that is received, which is either positive or negative, and this goes a long way in energizing or de-energizing relationships, a concept that Dr. Dolinoy had pointed out. How crucial can feedback be? This was highlighted by the last speaker of this session, Dr. Tammy Collins, director of the Office of Fellows’ Career Development at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. She stressed the feeling an employee gets upon receiving feedback. There was a Gallup poll done that showed that more than 65% of employees said that they wanted to receive more feedback and over 80% said that being recognized regularly in the form of positive feedback helped to motivate them in their job. So, what is “feedback”? Dr. Collins said that providing feedback does not necessarily mean having a conversation about what right or wrong a person is doing in their job. “Being specific” is very important, and possibly a private conversation would be encouraged to prevent embarrassment to the person if corrective action feedback is going to be provided. Having “empathy” toward the other person also goes a long way in avoiding conflict during this process. Dr. Collins re-emphasized the importance of nonverbal communication, like what Mitchell had highlighted in her talk. The major takeaway from Dr. Collins’s talk was how to provide effective feedback. She explained the concept of S-A-I-F, adapted from the Center for Creative Leadership, where S stands for “situation,” A for “action,” I for “impact,” and F for “future.” This was a wonderful framework for a productive conversation. All feedback should include these four steps. Starting from situation, where the time, place, or circumstance should be mentioned, followed by the action about what the other person did without being judgmental or bringing the “you’s” into the picture. Next comes the impact that the person’s action had on our feelings or on science. The last part is to talk about what needs to be changed in the future and how the change needs to be brought about. Dr. Collins provided a few examples of conflicts in the workplace and how the S-A-I-F framework can be used to resolve them.
The response from the audience showed how effective this entire session was and how all the speakers had hit the right note because a lengthy question-and-answer session followed, where many audience members shared their feedback as well as their personal experience of facing conflict in the workplace, and all queries were answered by the panel. The most important takeaways were “being respectful,” “setting clear expectations,” the S-A-I-F framework, and the concept of “mindfulness,” which Mitchell pointed out during the Q&A session, which would help us to be aware of the situation we are in and to deal with it effectively.
This blog was prepared by an SOT Reporter. SOT Reporters are SOT members who volunteer to write about sessions and events they attend during the SOT Annual Meeting and ToxExpo. If you are interested in participating in the SOT Reporter program in the future, please email Giuliana Macaluso.
Editor’s Note: The recording of the SOT 58th Annual Meeting and ToxExpo Education-Career Development Session “Navigating Turbulent Waters: How to Address Conflict throughout Your Career” is available on the SOT website.