Practical analysis for investment professionals
25 July 2017

Reduce Tension in the Team: Don’t Attack

Tension, friction, and conflict are common in the workplace, especially when pressure is high.

One habit, or nonhabit, in particular, helps to reduce conflict and build trust. It may sound simple, but it’s difficult to achieve. The practice is this: Don’t attack people.

By “attack,” I don’t mean finding the nearest sharp object and poking someone, I mean verbal attacks: statements such as, “You’re pushing us too hard,” or “You’re taking all the credit for our work.”

You might say these aren’t attacks but statements of fact. No, they’re not. They are your story about the specific event. The facts might be: “You have asked me to fill out three RFPs by tomorrow.” My story is: “You’re pushing too hard,” or “In the meeting, when we discussed the work we did together, you said it was no problem.” My story is: “The boss thinks you did all the work.”

The key skill involves stating the facts accurately and then owning your story and your reaction. But not attacking. The first example above should unpack as follows:

  1. Fact: You asked me to fill out three RFPs by tomorrow. Check with your boss, is this accurate? Does she agree?
  2. Story: That is an unreasonable request. The workload is too much.
  3. Reaction: I feel overwhelmed, fearful, and angry. I don’t want to let the firm down, but I don’t think I can accomplish it in that time frame. I am afraid of negative repercussions.

Notice that in the Reaction, there is no “you” statement. The person is not blaming or criticizing. Rather he is reporting his own internal reality, which is unarguable. Whatever he thinks and feels is internal to him. You may see it differently, but his reality is his reality.

Here’s the point: There is absolutely no way to reduce conflict when one or both parties go on the attack. An example of such an exchange might sound like this:

Person A: You don’t get your work done on time.

Person B: That’s because you are expecting too much. You’re pushing too hard.

Person A: No, it’s because you don’t manage your time well.

Person B: No, it’s because you schedule pointless meetings that take up my time.

The natural response to being attacked is to counterattack. Or retreat. Fight or flight. Any attack will trigger this physiological response. You will receive an aggressive response or a passive-aggressive response. Neither reduces conflict or builds trust and rapport.

So, what’s the solution? First, recognize this common pattern of attack and counterattack. It happens continually in relationships. It’s human nature. But it’s not effective and it won’t help.

Second, watch for when you are being attacked or delivering an attack. Learn to take a moment — or a breath — and avoid the urge to counterattack. This is hard, especially when under pressure. Sometimes it’s easier to practice awareness by watching others in meetings. You’ll see this pattern of attack time and again. You’ll also see it’s not helpful.

The paradoxical solution is to do the opposite of attack: Relax and state your own reality — calmly and respectfully: “I know I missed the deadline, and I’m sorry. I am asking myself what happened and how I can do better. I really hate letting people down.” This sort of honest and open response usually changes the tone of the conversation altogether. Again, the technique offered here is to simply make “I” statements about your own reality. Reveal what is true for you and resist attacking back.

Unfortunately, for most of us, in the moment, it feels more satisfying to smack the other person back. That approach is rampant in the world. Politicians smack each other in debates, popular television shows thrive on revenge plots, sports stars power up and shout down opponents, and self-help books tell us not to be doormats. It’s countercultural to take the nonviolent approach. But that approach is the only one that’s effective. Some bosses may bully people into submission by continuing to attack, but that never builds trust or loyalty, just resentment and a culture of fear.

In practice then, the best statement to make when you are attacked is, “I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere if we attack each other.” I’ve seen this statement — or a variation of it — work to end the battle and hit the reset button.

Don’t misunderstand my advice: I’m not recommending you eliminate accountability from your firm’s culture. Not at all. You should set goals, agree on how to achieve them, monitor the progress over time, provide feedback when you’re falling short, and reward people for success. But don’t create a culture in which attack and counterattack are the accepted means of dealing with differences. It won’t work.

The only path to success is for each party to take responsibility, own their part, and then discuss it in a safe, non-attacking way. If you succeed, you’ll become a “one-percenter.” By one-percenter, I am not referring to income levels, but to the proportion of the population that is self-aware and mature enough to adopt this behavior.

I confess I’m not quite there yet, but I am getting better: “My name is Jim, and I’m a recovering attacker.”

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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.

Image credit: ©Getty Images/Planet Flem

About the Author(s)
Jim Ware, CFA

James Ware, CFA, is the founder of Focus Consulting Group, a firm dedicated to helping investment leaders leverage their talent. Ware is the author of “Investment Leadership: Building a Winning Culture for Long-Term Success,” and "High Performing Investment Teams," both of which discuss those elements of leadership and teamwork that lead to sustainable success for investment firms. Ware has 20 years’ experience as a research analyst, portfolio manager, and director of buy-side investment operations. He has been a guest lecturer on the topic of investment firm management at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management, Northwestern University. Ware has a Masters in Business from the University of Chicago and a degree in philosophy from Williams College, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

1 thought on “Reduce Tension in the Team: Don’t Attack”

  1. Brad Case says:

    This is very good, Jim. And not merely in the workplace: I’m dealing right now with a problem very much along these lines in my church. I hope many people, including myself, can learn to practice your suggestions.

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