Chicago, IL, USA


Lessons from the Road: Conflict, Cars and the Workplace.

September 12, 2018

I drive my children to school every day. Taking children to school is a very interesting experiment to observe human behavior. It would seem that parents will stop at nothing to ensure they gain the extra 30 seconds they need to obtain perfect attendance.  Perhaps you are familiar with this very enthusiastic dynamic at school drop off time.


Today I had an interaction with a woman who beeped her horn in a very committed manner behind me as a car passed in front of me. I was not able to go forward because I did not want to cause an accident. After that a bike came into my lane and I had to slow down once again. Still the woman behind me continued her horn commitment, alarming my toddler in the process.


Once we arrived to the light the lady pulled her car next to me and  began to roll her window down. “What a great opportunity, to vindicate myself,” I thought. I, of course, expected to calmly engage. I would present the facts of the story and my perspective, and she would be left with no choice but to see that clearly I was the one being wronged here, right?


As we rolled our windows down, we both began to speak.  And for some reason she had no interest in my clearly outlined, calm and thoughtful case. She had a case of her own, one that ended with a very gracious “hand gesture” and wave goodbye. The light turned green and she wasted no time with the gas pedal.


As she drove away, I could feel the adrenaline pumping through my veins  and I could not help but think about how similar this interaction is to how many of us approach conflict in the workplace.


A grievance occurs and we immediately begin “building our case” to demonstrate to the other that we, in fact, are the innocent ones. “I had to respond that way because he never listens.” “I was up all night working, what else do they want?” And so on the discourse goes. We build and build and build until our case is rock solid and no one could ever question our rightness in a situation and the clear “wrongness” of someone else.

It struck me as funny that when we both rolled down our windows, we each immediately begin to speak. Knowing we had the time of a traffic light, no one volunteered their time to say, “You know, let me just breathe and listen to your perspective first.” My years in people and career development has shown me that this is often exactly human behavior around conflict at work. We use the precious moments we have to present our own case, instead of listening to the case of another.


And yet, it is this very “case building” that works against us! It is what drives a wedge between us and the other with whom we have our conflict. The case does not seek to collaborate, resolve, or create relationship - it only creates rightness.


To not “case build” calls for something very different, something many of us are not willing to engage at work: vulnerability and trust. To listen to another is to make one's self vulnerable within another’s opinion.  A true test of leadership is whether one has the strength, depth and confidence to be the listener first.


The reality is, there is a always a person behind the horn. When I think about the woman this morning, she probably was stressed about a meeting, or felt unheard by a colleague and I just happened to be the recipient of that frustration. A leader in conflict is able to see the real “person” behind the car horn and draw them into a greater dialogue if the person is willing (and if they aren’t at a traffic light!).


Ironically, it is only this “seeing others as people” that allows us to do the work of building dynamic teams. This work is tougher than the quick and easy "make a case" argument. It requires personal stamina and emotional intelligence.


As for the woman in the car, I hope I helped her blow off some steam. And as for my toddler in the backseat, I simply explained that it was not advisable to make the same hand gesture at school. The teachers would surely take issue.



References: The above article applied concepts from the following resources:

Arbinger Institute. (2016). The anatomy of peace: How to resolve the heart of conflict.  London: Penguin Books.

Arbinger Institute. (2009). Leadership and self-deception: Getting out of the box. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler

Hughes, R. L., Beatty, K. C., & Dinwoodie, D. L. (2014). Becoming a strategic leader your role in your organizations enduring success. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Boyatzis, R. E., Goleman, D., & Rhee, K. (2000). Clustering competence in emotional intelligence: Insights from the Emotional Competence Inventory (ECI). Handbook of emotional intelligence, 99(6), 343-362.


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