Conflicts in the workplace may be common and, to some degree, inevitable, but they often take a major toll on employees and the organization. When conflicts are mishandled, they can have wide-ranging negative consequences: from the indirect costs of distrust, low morale, and loss of motivation, to the direct costs that may come from legal fees from litigation and lost revenue due to productivity losses. At the heart of why conflicts may escalate to untenable levels is the mismanagement of heightened emotions. These emotions are natural and automatic reactions to the social situation that may have been festering over time.
Why conflicts get out of control is a failure to recognize the importance of attachment, and how this becomes eroded or misdirected. In the context of the workplace or working with other people in teams, attachment refers to the type of emotional bonds co-workers or teammates develop to one another. Securely attached people are comfortable with and good at, forming strong bonds. When our attachment becomes insecure, however, we become disconnected and detached, defensive and distant, which leads to stonewalling that makes conflict resolution unlikely.
Attachment Theory postulates that we are wired for connection and belonging. When we create an unsafe environment for people, they default to three possible strategies to get that connection back (two of which are ineffective):
The last one (reaching) is the most effective way to repair the connection. It pulls people closer and reestablishes safety in the relationship.
In attachment relationships, the brain constantly assesses the security of the relationship by asking three key attachment questions:
These questions address a very special kind of emotional presence – a presence that is wired in our nervous system by millions of years of evolution and is designed to keep us safe. In moments of disconnection, when leaders are able to address these three questions in their communication with employees, they help to re-establish a secure connection in the relationship and regain emotional balance. One good example was a memo that was written by Google CEO, Sundar Pichai.
In 2017, a Google employee wrote a 10-page memo expressing his views. In response, he was fired by his manager. Learning about this incident, Pichai interrupted his vacation to address the situation and wrote a memo to all Google employees.
In this memo, he addresses these three questions, demonstrating over and over again that he cares about his employees, that they matter to him, and that he is there for them when they need him. He made sure to create that emotional presence that provided them security and reassurance in their relationship with him (as a leader) and the company.
Here are a few examples of Pichai’s deeper emotional connection that were highlighted in a powerful and meaningful way.
This has been a very difficult time. I wanted to provide an update on the memo that was circulated over this past week.
Pichai recognizes the struggle that some might have been experiencing as a result of reading the memo. He starts by letting them know that he is tuned in to and aligned with their experience in a way that is relevant to the employees’ concerns and worries.
First, let me say that we strongly support the right of Googlers to express themselves, and much of what was in that memo is fair to debate, regardless of whether a vast majority of Googlers disagree with it. Our job is to build great products for users that make a difference in their lives.
In times of stress, people often lose their emotional balance and develop tunnel vision. Pichai helps employees to regain that balance by recognizing and reassuring them of their safety to express themselves and be heard, as well as bringing everyone to the common purpose.
To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK. It is contrary to our basic values and our Code of Conduct, which expects “each Googler to do their utmost to create a workplace culture that is free of harassment, intimidation, bias, and unlawful discrimination.
Setting cultural norms and re-establishing safety by reaffirming that every person is important and matters, answers the questions, “Do I matter?” and “Am I important?” with clarity and inclusion.
The memo has clearly impacted our co-workers, some of whom are hurting and feel judged based on their gender. Our co-workers shouldn’t have to worry that each time they open their mouths to speak in a meeting, they have to prove that they are not like the memo states, being “agreeable” rather than “assertive,” showing a “lower stress tolerance,” or being “neurotic.” At the same time, there are co-workers who are questioning whether they can safely express their views in the workplace (especially those with a minority viewpoint). They, too, feel under threat, and that is also not OK.
Empathizing both sides distills people’s emotions, and sends clear emotional signals that all opinions are valid and essential. In attachment terms, the danger is literal – disconnection is a danger cue for the mammalian brain. Alan Shore at UCLA Brain Development says, “Proximity to an attachment figure tranquilizes the nervous system.” What this means is that the CEO is an attachment figure, and when he is able to understand their pain, his words calm their nervous system down, bringing back their emotional balance.
People must feel free to express dissent. So to be clear again, many points raised in the memo—such as the portions criticizing Google’s training, questioning the role of ideology in the workplace, and debating whether programs for women and underserved groups are sufficiently open to all—are important topics. The author had a right to express their views on those topics—we encourage an environment in which people can do this, and it remains our policy not to take action against anyone for prompting these discussions.
Refocusing the company on the focal point of creating safety through acceptance and belonging, and reflecting and acknowledging the person’s views is an influential way of creating safety. Normalizing and reconfirming the right to express opinions freely promotes the development of a grounded, positive, and integrated sense of self. A felt sense of comfort having a secure base – a solid platform from which individuals can take risks and express themselves so they can develop a sense of competence and autonomy.
The past few days have been very difficult for many at the company, and we need to find a way to debate issues on which we might disagree—while doing so in line with our Code of Conduct. I’d encourage each of you to make an effort over the coming days to reach out to those who might have different perspectives from your own. I will be doing the same. I have been on work-related travel in Africa and Europe the past couple of weeks and have just started my family vacation here this week. I have decided to return tomorrow as clearly there’s a lot more to discuss as a group—including how we create a more inclusive environment for all.
The key factors that define the quality and security of the relationship are perceived accessibility, responsiveness, and emotional engagement of attachment figures. This CEO’s strength of expressing emotional struggle and reaching out to his team for help to find a solution pulls his employees closer. This is a classic reframe giving people a model of how they can start to take control of disconnections that they may feel, so instead of shutting down or going into the mode of complaining or blaming (pushing for connection), Pichai is suggesting they reach out to each other and reestablish their safety through emotional interaction.
The CEO is being accessible, responsive, and engaged, demonstrating his care and concern for his employees by being there for them in times of need. He answers the question, “Will you be there when I need you?” with a resounding “YES.”
I am persuaded more and more that the essence of creating a connected culture is for leaders to be able to help people deal with their emotions in moments of stress and help them get to the core feelings, needs, and fears so that they deal with them in the most effective way possible. You have to be able to do that. Because in the end, this conflict is not about the content, it is all about emotional safety, needs, and fears of being able to reach out and depend on others to be there for us.
Creating an emotional connection in work relationships takes time and practice. But it develops a lasting change in the workplace culture where people can thrive.
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