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Paul P. Baard's Motivation Matters: Conflict at work adds up — and subtracts from productivity

August 24. 2014 8:22PM

Not long ago, a major study of how managers' time is allocated produced a startling finding: A majority of their time is spent addressing internal, interpersonal conflict. We're not talking about the need to break up fist-fights; this is more about seemingly incidental stuff.
The problem: These so-called minor grievances result in a great deal of unproductive activity and serve as obstacles to the collaboration needed for getting work accomplished.

'No way I'm going to return his email promptly. He left me waiting a week to reply to my request.' Or: 'I refuse to work in a group with her! She attacked my suggestion in our last meeting!' Team building can be pretty difficult at times.Taking a closer look at this insidious organizational issue: I know that what I think can have an effect on me. If I worry enough, I can develop an ulcer. But when the thoughts of another can make me angry, that's another matter. And it's not just their thoughts that can upset me, it's what I think they are thinking that has impact. This is where we get into 'I know what she meant by that look' (or 'By not returning my 'Good Morning' she is trying to put me down'). It's mind-reading run amuck.
I have labeled this dynamic Psychological Fusion: when other people can 'make us' feel. It is a trick of the mind (psychological) where our brain is, in effect, temporarily controlled by another (fusion). It is evident in road rage, where someone's action in not letting us take our proper place when lanes are merging is interpreted as demeaning. CBS aired a two-part feature on my work on road rage. The biochemistry behind this interaction finds its origin in the 'fight or flight' reflexive response to a perceived physical threat in the environment. For example, there are many stories told of how an individual, seeing a tot pinned under a car that rolled back, actually is able to lift that car off the child. The power of adrenaline is that great! (Of course, the hero will likely need a chiropractor in short time.)
So, we are marvelously designed to react to life-threatening situations. But road rage and perceived slights at work aren't about any real threat to us - except in a psychological sense. When a person is insufficiently self-defined, i.e., a compliment in the morning can make our day and a criticism can break it, we are at the mercy of others to define who we are. And that's the key to getting off this roller-coaster of life where one can go through the day hurt and angry too much of the time. Some even carry a mental hate-list around. What a burden to bear.
What can be done? Putting a label on this otherwise automated response system raises the responding to a conscious level and helps begin to get things under control ('Am I fusing on this?'). More richly defining who you are reduces the ability of others to do so. For serious levels of the problem, probably meeting with a psychologist would be most effective. For milder forms, an exercise found effective follows. Take seven small index cards or sticky notes. Write down one positive, personal characteristic that you have chosen to be on each card. For example, 'reliable' if you are one of those who keeps his or her word. Do not write down 'intelligent': while this may well be so, this is a gift you were born with. 'Academically accomplished' might be true, however, if it is something you have chosen to be. When completing the seven cards, tape them up to a mirror you use in the morning, and take note of them as you set out for the day. This exercise helps make up for any shortages in reassuring observations your parents might have given you in your formative years.
In a similar vein, I brought the 'I define me' program into the world of professional athletes where ballplayers were too often getting into fights because an opponent (or coach, official, or fan) 'disrespected' them. I suppose those who wrote an index card including 'teachable' had the most success with this approach. Conflict reduction in work teams sometimes requires intervention, and it is well worth the effort. Just ask any manager with even a touch of grey hair.
By lessening sensitivity to criticism, either real or imagined, one moves into the better category of low-maintenance employee - which harried managers appreciate. And if you are the manager, you have another tool available to help people grow. And with annual performance reviews just around the corner…

Dr. Paul P. Baard may be reached at He is an organizational and sports psychologist with Fordham University, a former senior line executive in the television industry, and the lead author of a book on leadership and motivation. He and his wife, Veronica, a former senior HR executive of an international investment bank, head up a consulting firm based in Campton, focusing on motivation, conflict reduction, and team building. Questions are welcomed at

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