Nerves of Steel: Over the Edge

Alright, readers, it’s about to get real today in part 1 of a 2-part post, as I’m adding another post to the transparency category. I was a little hesitant to post this one up, but after discussions with several professionals in my life, I feel like it can provide some value. With that preface, here’s a story about office conflict and nerves of steel… or not.

I work in the aviation/aerospace industry, which is heavily dominated by men, and my office environment is no exception. Further, most of my colleagues are technically inclined, and I’m the only “creative” in the office. Further still, most of my colleagues are old enough to be my parents, and I’m the youngest by a minimum of 10 years. All of these differences make me an easy target for zingers, and when our entire sales staff comes together, the zingers start flying instantly. Granted, they zing each other, too, but eventually, it ends up being several against one, because it’s just easier that way. Joking and “all in good fun” are part of most office cultures, and I can generally dish it out with the best of them. However, this time, it went a little too far, and I had what I consider to be one (ok, fine, TWO) of the most unprofessional moments in my career. So what pushed me over the edge?

Going professional. Most of the time, the jokes have nothing to do with my professional ability. I can counter a comment about being too young to know what “rolodex” means with a comment about fancy coffee or Twitter. I can’t counter a comment about how long I’ve been in the industry, since most of these people have been in aviation longer than I’ve been alive. This doesn’t mean that I don’t have expertise, that I can’t provide insight, or that I’m not an authority in my subject or position. When you start taking shots at my ability to do my job, that’s a problem. When you start undermining my credibility as an educated and experienced professional, your jokes are no longer funny.

Going public. If you have an issue with a decision I’ve made or a program I’ve implemented, I’m happy to discuss the concerns in a private, professional meeting. However, while I’m standing up to give a presentation to a group of 20 is not the time to air grievances. This is particularly true if the grievance is more a matter of opinion vs. fact (“I don’t really like the color of the ad” vs. “There’s a typo on the website”). Most business books and conflict management books suggest approaching someone in private, since public events say “attack”, and make people defensive. And, it’s true, I felt attacked, and therefore, became defensive.

Going blame-crazy. I work for the parent company, and the sales meeting was for one of the child companies. Several complaints from the reps are in direct conflict with the overall company strategy, which they don’t know about. So, many reps thought that I was refusing to accommodate their requests because I just didn’t like them, didn’t want to do it, or just ignored them. In fact, it was because the requests were in direct conflict with the over-arching strategy, and what upper management had dictated. Unfortunately, the reps never heard from upper management, so they just blamed it on the one person they’d made the request to; me.

Going beyond the line. As the situation escalated, I was clearly not in a position to continue the discussion in a professional manner. Instead of suggesting a recess from the discussion, it kept going. And going. We moved from a passionate discussion with a purpose, to personal shots, yelling, and throwing our hands up. I’ll take ownership of the mistake not to leave a volatile situation when I should have, and allowing myself to be pushed over the line. To me, I was afraid of looking “weak”, “wrong” or “unsure” by walking away from the table. Instead, I feel that I looked angry, explosive, and defensive, which is no better than the impression I’d give had I walked away.

I’ve re-capped the factors that contributed to the melt-down, and tomorrow’s post will give some tactics to resolve the conflicts!

9 thoughts on “Nerves of Steel: Over the Edge

  1. Yikes…I applaud your honesty to bring these issues out here. You are not the only one who has had to deal with this type of environment, but you can surely help others who have. 🙂 Looking forward to tomorrow’s post!

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  2. Thanks, Angeline! This was, fortunately, a pretty isolated incident, but several of my classmates also mentioned experiencing difficult situations similar to this one, so I thought it best to just put it out there to say, “We’ve all been there at least once!”

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  3. Matt Faus

    I think expressing anger is absolutely better than showing weakness. Like you mentioned a few days ago, everyone involved in a professional relationship is a human being, and we have emotions that must be expressed. You must express the emotion in a way that is constructive, and sometimes shouting and passionate gestures fit perfectly into the situation.

    Police are faced with the decision on the appropriate amount of force to use on a daily basis. From a quick search, it looks like research and formal definitions of Force Continua for Police is a rather fresh field of study.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Use_of_force_continuum

    It would be very interesting to come up with a similar continuum for use in the corporate world.

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  4. How timely. I just got all irritated in a meeting a few weeks ago myself. In my mind’s eye, I was responding to the fellow who was egging me on. He was criticizing the way I had chosen to do something, sort of personally attacking what I had done, and I was responding in kind. He was getting more adamant, I was getting more adamant. Later on someone else who had been in the meeting told me I should try to remain more calm in the future and say less. That by getting…emotional? Huffy? Defensive? That I was taken less seriously. You know what? Eff- it. When a guy acts that way he is being assertive. When it’s a woman we’re being emotional. You can’t let yourself go over and over this incident in your head forever (I am one to talk, as I hardly slept the night after MY incident). I’m not saying we all shouldn’t work on getting less angry. But that maybe what’s perceived as anger or defensiveness in us is perceived as arrogance in others. Many of my colleagues stay quiet and just try to please people by not answering the question rather than giving someone an answer they won’t like. This just doesn’t work for my integrity, so I can’t act like this. Maybe there is some happy medium.

    On the guys razzing you for your age or inexperience, it’s probably because they are insecure themselves. If I can tell they are joking I will try to be nice about it. Some have learned that I won’t go for their weak points and they have stopped trying to go for mine. Other times you just need to not engage. Stay quiet and just stare at them. Maybe ask them why they’re concerned. Other times you need to fight back. “Oh my god, you’re outta college for 2 years and you think you can tell me what to do?” “I’m trying to accomplish this project. If you feel bad about your age that’s your issue.” Turn it back on them, fight fire with fire.

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  5. @FrauTech, I’m sorry to hear that you had a similar experience! FWIW, everyone else in the office actually thought I handled things pretty well, given the situation. I’ve been able to let it go, but you’re right, the night of and day after were pretty stressful.

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  6. Pingback: Nerves of Steel: Resolving Conflict » Consciously Corporate - When business is your life.

  7. Ashley, I’m right with you on all these points. I haven’t overreacted yet in similar situations, but I have been really defensive and explaining things I don’t need to (I hate not being liked, lol!). But in both of our cases, the situation can get out of hand quickly.

    My manager is coaching me on delivering my message and then carefully managing the feedback. It’s a balancing act, but I think that it all really comes down to trust… if the audience doesn’t trust that you are providing the best information, ad, program, etc. then it’s easy for them to turn on the presenter. Once that foundation is built, it’s smoother sailing… which takes much more time than my patience can handle 😉

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  8. @Nicole, I completely agree with the patience issue! Especially coming from the academic environment, where each project/group is only a semester long, the pace of making impressions happens much faster. For better or worse, if you prove yourself in the first 2 or 3 weeks of the semester, it sticks (and if you are terrible, that sticks too!) In the workplace, my team has had at least 10 years to build the relationships, so my little 1.5 years with the company can’t compare yet.

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