How do I lead in the presence of interpersonal conflict?
September 18, 2017 11:05 AM   Subscribe

I'm taking a leadership role in an organization. There's a guy here who I don't feel comfortable or happy to work with. How to proceed?

Wasn't sure how to Google this one, so feel free to share links to past questions if this has been addressed.

I'm taking a leadership role in a small organization I've been part of for several years. This is a hobby/affinity organization. Let's call it ABC. I have a history of leadership with ABC but haven't been leading recently. I'm female.

A man of my same age, Ken, is also part of ABC. I find it personally hard to engage him. I feel triggered when he pushes and asks for responses, or doesn't respect when I say "no" to something. We have had just a few interactions like this but, after a recent one and with the advice of a trusted friend, I asked him not to talk to me anymore; I referred him to other ABC leaders.

How can I lead with this conflict present? What strategies do you have for leading when you have a strong negative response to someone's approach, someone who wants to work with you? What standards can I hold myself to? What's reasonable?

Other leaders and friends are supportive of me taking what actions I feel I need to, and also supportive of my leadership. My co-leader says I should not have to speak to him if I don't feel like it. But this doesn't feel good or sustainable.

-----

Here's all the context, in case I'm not asking the right question, and in case there's something else here that will help answer:

Since joining, Ken has desired to lead. He's contributed a lot. I enjoyed being friends with him. He has a very assertive way of being, to the point where I feel triggered. There were a few conversations where I clearly said "no" and he kept pushing. He's said he feels sad we aren't more connected as friends. I wish he would understand that not everyone is going to be friends. I wasn't as up-front about this as I could have been, in part because I didn't expect him to respect what I would say; in part because of conflict aversion and hoping this would just resolve itself.

I do desire to help and support him. He's asked for advice and guidance in the past, I gave it, and he was mostly responsive. It just took a lot of time and energy.

Recently a few things happened. With support of ABC and the ABC network and a lot of people in my life, I was invited to this leadership role where I'm basically one of two people leading ABC.

Having talked with past leaders, I suspected now not only would Ken have me in his focus as someone he wants (friendship, companionship, affirmation?) from, now I am a leader and he has a history of pushing hard against leaders and requesting a lot of time and investment; since we're so small we don't really have capacity to be as responsive as he wants. My honest opinion? I think he should find somewhere else, where he feels listened to. But he shares a passion for the work of ABC and wants to be here.

When Ken keeps pushing, it occupies my brain, I feel tense, it wakes up feelings of not being respected or listened to in the past, it activates this stress response that I think is related to the post-election environment. As a leader, I just feel tired from interacting with him. Part of me thinks I'm overreacting and should just accept this. After all, some other people have issues with his style, but no one else has come to this point. But then the part of me that's become more aware of the dynamic where women just tolerate issues, and where we doubt ourselves, says no! He makes me uncomfortable and it's time for that not to just be borne by me.

I definitely know that I'm more easily reactive to people not appearing to respect boundaries. That's because I have a history with a family that was awful at boundaries and I'm still recalibrating. So I accept that this is a "ramenopres" thing, perhaps, at least in the scale of my reaction. I also accept that it's my reaction and I want to give full affirmation to how I feel, while finding the path forward for growth.

I've spent the past months taking small steps to avoid being around him -- not going to events he'll be at, not joining a team that I knew he would be on. Things that didn't really affect my life or stand out.

Now Ken wants to be a formal leader. The other leaders have expressed support for me and say I should not do anything I feel unsafe doing; they are deciding that he won't be on the leadership team, in part because of this conflict and for other reasons. I told the other leaders I don't want to make the final decision about him being on the team, for [all reasons above!] but I also recognize that my influence is strong here and it's basically "him or me." One perspective here could say I'm essentially pushing him out. Am I pushing him out? Is this a power struggle that I'm winning? I have a lot of relational and now positional power in the community. Am I being manipulative?

I'm open to stepping down; if it helps ABC, and if the other ABC leaders see wisdom in it, I will leave and Ken can step up. But not one person has said they think that should happen.

The organizational leader in me, the part of me that's been observing his impact over the past years, says it's good for us to have this conflict in the open and talk to Ken about how his behavior affects ABC. The part of me that is Ken's friend wants to support him and accept him, honoring the desire he's expressed to learn and grow. The victim/scared/feminist part of me wants to protect myself and never interact with him. The go-getter in me says interacting with him will likely be draining, a distraction from the things I want to accomplish for the whole of ABC. Another part of me thinks I need to suck it up. I want to stand up and engage with him and provide strong leadership, clear communication, and equip him, which are all things he's been asking for.

I want to grow as a leader, be strong, have self-control, be responsive and not reactive. I want to push myself to engage. I want to do the best I can for ABC. How do I do that?

(I know we only get one side of the story here. Based on things he's said, I think he might say something like, "I admire and respect ramenopres. I want to be friends. I don't understand why r is pulling back. R and I agreed that she would tell me if I'm pushing too hard, so why didn't she just tell me? I've been working at respecting r's desire for distance. I don't understand why she had this sudden extreme response. Maybe r is power-hungry. Now she's acting exclusive like all the other leaders have done.")
posted by ramenopres to Work & Money (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm guessing this is a volunteer org, correct? Not your main career? My answer would be different otherwise.

It's probably hard to separate, but if you take out your personal feelings of being triggered, how would you act? From the way you describe it, it sounds like this person has more eagerness than aptitude and is unfit for the roles he wants to take on in your organization. As a leader, it is your job to set boundaries. It would be irresponsible for you to avoid the issue, as you have been trying to do. I think the kindest thing you can do for this person is to make it clear that you're not the one who is going to be best suited to develop him, and that he should pursue things with other leaders.
posted by danny the boy at 11:15 AM on September 18, 2017


Part-time work for a volunteer org.
posted by ramenopres at 11:23 AM on September 18, 2017


Reframe!

Part of this is an energy problem, basically how to deal with folks who require more attention than you can provide. Or, they wish to have a more combative exchange generally (they are comfortable in that aggressive energy) where you want more collaboration and equal give-and-take.

Part of this is that Ken is an aggressive competitive motherfucker who is jealous and sees you as a weak link he can target and leverage to his advantage.

Result: Push him the fuck out and feel no shame. Ken is about Ken, not ABC and its goals. If he were just your run of the mill attention seeker, that would be a leadership thing where you could set boundaries. He sees you as competition and he's going to try and take over. No one else wants him. Someone else needs to give him the boot, don't be a party to any kind of group intervention with Ken. Let the group dislodge him, you're not his therapist or employer, his wellbeing is not your problem.

You're right to avoid engagement. You don't have to defend your position further - the group can decide. Don't support any group interventions, this would be a distraction from ABC's mission and you can state that over and over again. Any kind of group intervention shifts ABC's focus towards Ken, and not the goals of ABC! Don't feed this problem by thinking you made a mistake about Ken. You assessed him correctly. Stand firmly and gracefully.
posted by jbenben at 11:28 AM on September 18, 2017 [11 favorites]


Also...

"I know we only get one side of the story here. Based on things he's said, I think he might say something like, "I admire and respect ramenopres. I want to be friends. I don't understand why r is pulling back. R and I agreed that she would tell me if I'm pushing too hard, so why didn't she just tell me? I've been working at respecting r's desire for distance. I don't understand why she had this sudden extreme response. Maybe r is power-hungry. Now she's acting exclusive like all the other leaders have done.""


That is the rhetoric of someone with poor boundaries and a penchant towards abusive behavior like bullying or stalking. This is the type of complaints abusers make against reasonable boundaries.

It seems like folks see this guy for what he is. I offer this up to you to point out that you are correct to avoid him, future discussions with him just help him push and push and push.

Not once does he take responsibility for his own choices and actions. Keep that in your back pocket when you feel doubtful.
posted by jbenben at 11:38 AM on September 18, 2017 [10 favorites]


One perspective here could say I'm essentially pushing him out. Am I pushing him out? Is this a power struggle that I'm winning? I have a lot of relational and now positional power in the community. Am I being manipulative?

I'm open to stepping down; if it helps ABC, and if the other ABC leaders see wisdom in it, I will leave and Ken can step up. But not one person has said they think that should happen.


You're not "pushing him out." He isn't in. You are. It sounds like you've half-decided that he ought to be allowed to push YOU out, and... why? Because he's loud? Because he wants in?

Part of being a leader is setting boundaries, and it almost sounds like you don't think you should be allowed to, despite the fact that everyone else involved with this organization is from the sound of it totally on your side. So whose voice is it in your ear telling you to STEP DOWN and let this pest have all the power, just because he wants it?
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:27 PM on September 18, 2017 [11 favorites]


If he's this much of an boundary crossing asshole to someone with authority over him, what is he doing to folks at or below his level? Leadership has an obligation to protect the organization from someone who's behavior actively harms it even if you can't do it for yourself.
posted by edbles at 12:44 PM on September 18, 2017 [11 favorites]


There's awfully thin gruel of transgressive behavior up there in that wall o'text. You said 'no' and he kept pushing? The guy might have valid reasons, and you're being blind to some really important liability. The guy might have grown up in NYC and you grew up in passive-aggressive land, who knows.

You *are* pushing him out. You're avoiding his presence, making it known to the rest of the group that it's 'him or me'. The guy's not blind, he likely sees that you're doing everything you can in your passive aggressive way to boot him to the street. And you wonder why he doesn't just bow down to your saying 'no'?

He pushes for feedback. He asks for guidance and support. He doesn't immediately shut up when you say "no". And *this* as it making you feel "unsafe"? Because of your past history - wakes up feelings of not being respected or listened to in the past, it activates this stress response that I think is related to the post-election environment? Really? Your past is his fault? How you react to stress is his fault?

Put it another way; you're pushing out a valuable contributor because it's too hard to interact with someone on your own team (because it brings up stress from the election!?!). What are you going to do when the going gets hard and you have to deal with someone who *isn't* on your team?
posted by cfraenkel at 12:51 PM on September 18, 2017 [12 favorites]


I'm basing this response off of the assumption that Ken isn't actually violating the rules or purposefully being an awful bully, but just has one of those clueless bruiser-type personalities that is both aggressively enthusiastic about getting involved in things and fundamentally incompatible with long-term, harmonious collaboration about said things.

For one-on-one dealings, it honestly doesn't strike me as necessarily the worst thing if you wanted to keep on civilly avoiding this guy and just shunt him off to another co-leader to deal with for anything more in-depth than a general tops-of-trees kind of interaction, if someone is willing to volunteer for this task. What's the point of co-leaders if you can't share the workload?

If in the name of your former friendship, you wanted to hash this issue out with Ken before stepping into your role, it may help clear the air, but honestly, the onus shouldn't be on you to patiently explain to this guy why and how you feel he's being disrespectful. You're a busy lady, and he should probably know better by now. So that's up to you.

For general meetings where you can't really play the "go talk to so-and-so" card, maybe preparing a couple of canned responses to known Ken-isms ahead of time will help you feel more confident when conducting a meeting knowing that he might interrupt with questions or challenging remarks. I'm sure the internet has loads of scripts for meeting management and control.

It might also be a good idea (although a little frustrating to add another social hoop to jump through in the name of managing a difficult personality rather than just telling him he's being a crumbum) to have a specific plan in place for if a meeting is getting too far derailed. Maybe after the third interruption, co-leader so-and-so knows it's time to also chime in with an "Anyway, we need to keep moving..." or something to help move the meeting along.

Also, searching for advice on how to manage/deal with difficult personalities might put you onto some additional strategies for building up your leadership toolbox. Good luck!
posted by helloimjennsco at 1:04 PM on September 18, 2017


Er no, totally disagree with cfraenkel. I find his comment pretty harsh. I don't care where someone has grown up, they should respect authority, even if it's in the form of a woman.
You are not pushing him out. If people continually ignore your attempt to push back and enforce boundaries it's not surprising you're feeling this way and are finding it difficult to figure this out. It is abusive.
I think there is some great advice above. I don't think a lot of men realize what it's like to be a woman dealing with men who ignore and abuse boundaries. That's misogyny for you.
Your feelings are valid. Others at your organization seem to support you so you're not alone, don't act as if this is a burden you have to bear alone. Work with your peers.
posted by shesbenevolent at 1:07 PM on September 18, 2017 [15 favorites]


The other leaders have expressed support for me and say I should not do anything I feel unsafe doing; they are deciding that he won't be on the leadership team, in part because of this conflict and for other reasons.

"and for other reasons?" Here's a leadership move: Please don't hide that "other reasons" within 500+ words in your mind, when "other reasons" likely take up much more real estate in everyone else's minds. Your willingness to, in whatever way, not sweep this under the rug? Might be the impetus that conflict-averse people around you need.
posted by gnomeloaf at 1:22 PM on September 18, 2017 [1 favorite]


I would just like to point out that you pitched your question as "how do I lead in the presence of interpersonal conflict," but the question you really asked was: "how can I get rid of this interpersonal conflict so that I can lead because I don't believe I can lead in the presence of interpersonal conflict."

And gently, I would say that if it is true that the presence of interpersonal conflict will compromise your ability to lead, then leadership may not be your jam. And that's ok. I just think that dealing with difficult people is pretty par for the course in these sorts of organizations (and dealing with difficult men is par for the course when you're a woman). Talk to him, avoid him, mentally jujitsu him, get him pushed out, fire him yourself, whatever - but there's no such thing as leadership without the need to confront and manage inevitable interpersonal conflicts.
posted by pinkacademic at 1:52 PM on September 18, 2017 [15 favorites]


I've been reading a lot about primates and dominance, and it resonates with lots of human dynamics. He's challenging you. He wants to be dominant. Don't let him. Be a little bit rude. Cut him off impatiently when he takes up too much time. Take up physical space - spread your stuff out. Don't be accommodating, don't explain yourself. These are all, at least a bit, jerk moves. It's better to push back hard at first than to fight a long battle of small exchanges. I don't know if this works, I suck at it. What really does help is to do the Power Stance before meetings and to remember that you're very good at what you do.
posted by theora55 at 2:20 PM on September 18, 2017 [4 favorites]


Does he actually have leadership skills? It sounds like he doesn't or someone else might be advocating for him to be part of the leadership team. What does he actually bring to the organisation? What are your organisation's goals and does he help achieve them or does he distract from them by making everything about him? I don't know the answers here, but the way you lead despite your interpersonal conflict is to stop making it about the personal relationship between the two of you. I'm not saying this is easy, and of course you will still have feelings about what's going on, but they're not going to help you here. Focus on things you can document: behaviour, actions, results or lack thereof. Keep the focus on the organisation in your dealings with him.

Also, he does not sound like your friend. Women are socialised to please people, to get on with everyone. But there is a distinction between being friendly and actually being a friend. He sounds like he is playing on your tendency to want to be friendly and use that to get what he wants. Be friendly but firm. Keep making it about the good of the organisation, get support from the rest of the team, document issues in case it turns out to be something so detrimental that you need to push him out of the organisation altogether.
posted by Athanassiel at 2:57 PM on September 18, 2017 [1 favorite]


It's really hard to say much in the absence of specific details (which I understand why you can't provide), but one thing that occurs to me is that Ken may be lacking in social skills but also desperate to contribute in some way and is feeling lonely and under-utilised. These sort of people can often be really useful to an org, but only if you can direct them appropriately (and that includes directing them in such a way that they don't trigger you and take up all your energy and bandwidth!).

If you can identify some leadership position that he can do where his talents are actually useful rather than detrimental and where you don't have to interact with him as much or in the ways that are difficult, that might be a win-win. So... is there anything like that in your org? Perhaps he can be Leader of Widget Advertising or Widget Travel Organisation Leader or something? If he doesn't have much in the way of leadership skills, but does have other skills, you may be able to create a position for him that you can sell as a leadership position because it involves being "in charge" of something but doesn't involve underlings.
posted by forza at 3:50 PM on September 18, 2017 [3 favorites]


My honest opinion? I think he should find somewhere else, where he feels listened to. But he shares a passion for the work of ABC and wants to be here.

This was the sentence which leaped out at me. I think you should act on that.

From the description, I don't know if it's you or he who has the problem, but it doesn't matter. You're the one in the leadership role and you will lead better if he's gone. And it will certainly be better for him to put his time and energy into an organisation where he is respected and valued. Not everyone is able to work together, and that's that. I would be clear with the rest of the leadership team what you want and expect and not dither because you're trying to be nice. At the very least, it seems clear you do not want him in a role as a formal leader. Stick to your guns.
posted by frumiousb at 5:35 PM on September 18, 2017


Well, this sets off my lady "oh god, pushy dude who won't take no for an answer from a woman" red alert button here, which makes me wonder if leading ABC is worth having to Always Be Conversing (and arguing, and arguing, and arguing) with Ken over every tiny thing. People who won't take no for an answer--especially if he does this only with you/other women and not men--are just awful to deal with. If he wants to be leader (I suspect any "friendliness" he has is aimed towards that goal), I suspect he'll only make it harder if you're in charge. Especially if you're terrible at boundaries because you grew up with people who mowed yours over, he probably sensed that about you somehow and that's why he acts like that towards you. You hate being around him and you're avoiding him and you're considering dropping out because of him--I think that says a lot about how much this dude bugs you. I don't think you can do your best work leading someone who's gonna keep shoving you out of the way.

"Now Ken wants to be a formal leader. The other leaders have expressed support for me and say I should not do anything I feel unsafe doing; they are deciding that he won't be on the leadership team, in part because of this conflict and for other reasons. I told the other leaders I don't want to make the final decision about him being on the team, for [all reasons above!] but I also recognize that my influence is strong here and it's basically "him or me." One perspective here could say I'm essentially pushing him out. Am I pushing him out? Is this a power struggle that I'm winning? I have a lot of relational and now positional power in the community. Am I being manipulative? I'm open to stepping down; if it helps ABC, and if the other ABC leaders see wisdom in it, I will leave and Ken can step up. But not one person has said they think that should happen."

What I find interesting here is that your co-leader and apparently other bigwigs in ABC actually notice that this guy is a problem. Do you know how incredibly rare this is? Or that this group would rather have you than Ken if pushy comes to shoving you out the door? It doesn't sound like the group is super psyched to have Ken lead them all here.

My advice here is that if you're choosing not to quit (and I'll be honest--as someone who can't get anyone to respect a boundary even if I scream my head off NO, every nerve in me is screaming QUIT QUIT FOR YOUR OWN SAFETY), you really need to enlist everyone else who isn't a Ken superfan into helping you deal with him, and yes, even push him out if necessary. I don't think you're being manipulative, I think he's setting off your creep radar with big ol' awoogah sirens, and he's probably doing the same with at least some of this crowd. He's a missing stair guy who will start ruining the organization if he gets his way. You need everyone else to help fend this guy off, and fend him right the heck out if possible. I'd say to sit down this group and having a very honest, Not Being A Nice Lady Who's Trying To Make Nice And Be Friends about it conversation. Don't say things like you just want to be friends with Ken. Don't be nice about it. Say that you are seriously considering dropping out of leadership and this organization entirely to avoid Ken and his drama, and how can they help you out with this? Do they agree with you that Ken isn't worth it, or would they rather you leave and let Ken rule the roost? If they don't love Ken and love you, how can they help you deal with him and preferably keep him away from you, at best?

I honestly don't think trying to lead Ken when he wants to lead and wants to mow you over is going to work out. If you and your people and co-leader can't come up with a way to combat him, I'd say to drop out, because Ken stress and drama isn't worth it. It's only going to escalate for you now if you step up in his way, and either you get out of his way or you get Team R behind you and figure out a way to minimize or eliminate him.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:07 PM on September 18, 2017 [1 favorite]


now I am a leader and he has a history of pushing hard against leaders and requesting a lot of time and investment; since we're so small we don't really have capacity to be as responsive as he wants

Sounds like that's your answer right there. And something to tell Ken, in addition to "No": "We're so small, we don't have the capacity to be as responsive as it seems you'd like. You've contributed a lot, which is wonderful. But you couldn't get what you wanted from the other leaders, you won't be able to get it from me. It's possible your time and energy should be directed elsewhere."

Can't promise that it won't work. But I can tell you like volunteers like Ken tend to push out the better volunteers because who has time for this shit? Nobody, that's who. Eventually the good volunteers leave, sick unto death of the Kens of the world that everyone is too polite to push out the door because of their aversion to conflict. The conflict, as noted above, is business as usual. Ignoring it and having good people leave is also, alas, business as usual at many nonprofits.

You are not pushing the guy out. You're simply refusing to give up your seat to him. Which, under the circumstances, is just fine and dandy. Keep your boundaries, remember that it's most likely not personal (sexist? Probably, and thanks again patriarchy), and just don't say yes when you need to say no.

Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 10:01 PM on September 18, 2017 [3 favorites]


"I was invited to this leadership role where I'm basically one of two people leading ABC."

This is a hobby/affinity org? Who invited you? Perhaps open elections would clarify things?
posted by at at 3:25 PM on September 19, 2017


« Older Best time-clock application or system?   |   dumple me Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.