Legacy of wisdom
Grandma always walked the tightrope of respect and honesty. She was frank with her daughters, and her main piece of advice for all of us was, “Don’t burn bridges.” She didn’t believe it was ever necessary to do that. She believed a wise person who practiced patience and thoughtfulness could always find a way around, over, or through any conflict, without having to blow up a relationship or tear down another person. She always told me, “You do not have to like people to get along with them.”
Her advice was to take negative emotion out of the equation whenever it threatened to unsettle my internal harmony—what I’ve since learned to call my homeostasis. She made it clear that it wasn’t just my own negative emotions I should sublimate, but also those of difficult people who wanted to bring negativity to the table. The idea wasn’t to judge them, but to simply not engage with them when they took a position meant to tear me down or tear others down. Grandma’s advice in that arena was most useful to me in my business career, where my goals often required me to maintain relationships with difficult people.
I have made the mistake of burning a few bridges in my lifetime, but have learned something from these experiences each time. Early in my career, I worked for a company that hired me to assist with the workload of one of its full-time employees, an administrative assistant. This colleague had held her position for several years and she made it clear she was proud of running a tight ship. No one made mistakes in her area, not the employees, not her colleagues, and not the customers.
She was assigned to train me, and at first I was excited to work with her. I appreciated her attention to detail and desire to do the job right, so I humbly followed her lead and made sure to cross all my T’s and dot all my I’s. She was very energetic and sometimes rough in her speech, but I did as she said and tried to learn all she had to teach me. She often delivered strong criticism when I didn’t do things the specific way she wanted them. I took note and created
a list of absolute no-nos that I would refrain from doing.
Soon I noticed that no matter how many mistakes I corrected, she always found more.
As my training proceeded, she had me listen to customer calls so I would understand how to handle them. It didn’t take long for me to become concerned about her approach with customers. She often put them down based on how they handled conflict and whether they had created their own problems. After I observed her calls for a few weeks, I then had the opportunity to handle calls. I found that most of our customers needed guidance, so I gently guided them through the steps to fix their issues, assuring them that their mistakes were simply based on a need for more information about the way the industry works. The more my trainer saw how customers responded to my gentler, more positive approach, the angrier she became. Who was I to set a different standard?
When the tension between us rose to an unbearable pitch, I approached our general manager and said I wasn’t sure the arrangement was going to work. I filled her in on the state of affairs, but emphasized that I did not want to make waves and would be happy to simply transfer if another position was open. One thing I didn’t understand then was that when an employee brings a problem to a manager, that employee has little control over how the manager will solve it.
Instead of transferring me, the manager transferred my coworker. What’s more, she transferred her to an area with very little customer contact and promoted me to take over her role. My coworker (and trainer) was shocked. She wasn’t sure if it was a promotion or a reprimand. I could tell she blamed me for the change. Our relationship was never the same after that. I had burned the bridge with her for good, and possibly with anyone else to whom she might care to tell her version of the story. Not only that, I created an awkward atmosphere in a place where I still had to continue working for the next few years.
In retrospect, I probably should have done more to work with that colleague, tapping into her more reasonable side and seeking opportunities to let her shine in her own way. Under that rough exterior, she might have been more approachable and capable of resolving our conflict than I gave her credit for. At the time, I didn’t think it was an option, partly because she seemed so attached to the drama, and partly because we needed to get business done at a fast pace. Keeping the goal of not burning bridges in the forefront of my mind might have guided me to a different conclusion.
creating optimal outcomes
The situation with my trainer started me on a path of realizing that it is important to predict outcomes and handle situations with the goal of preserving all people involved. My ultimate goal is to create a win-win solution whenever possible. Creative solutions are optimal, but win-wins are ideal. I have found that the wisest approach to creating any solution is to employ analysis, insight, and forethought to help me predict potential human reactions and the resulting systemic outcomes. The key to conflict resolution is to keep my eye on the ball, striving my best to contribute in a positive way while working toward mutual goals. ■
Her advice was to take negative emotion out of the equation whenever it threatened to unsettle my internal harmony— what I’ve since learned to call my homeostasis.
Taylor Strategy Partners 2015, 300 pgs, Paperback Gabrielle V Taylor