Managing overly assertive and poor co-operation during conflicts

by Winnie Onyekwere 

There are times as an executive or manager, being high on the assertiveness spectrum certainly pays dividends during periods when there is an emergency or where time is of the essence. However, there are times when high assertiveness and low cooperativeness can be destructive to relationships; and team leaders can be seen as autocratic, defensive or controlling resulting in poor performance.

I recall a time, several years ago, when I was in the law practice, when a client instructing me in divorce proceedings, came to see me. He was visibly distressed and expressed that he would potentially be unable to sustain payment of his fees in the long term for his case. He was a mid-level executive in a clothing company that was experiencing some problems. Two years prior to this, three managers had been brought into the business in succession to turn things around, each had failed and left the company as a result. 

My client was called in on one particular meeting with the managing partner. My client was asked to take over the sales team as he felt that my client was the person to turn it around. Well, instead of excitement my client’s heart sank and anger welled up inside of him. My client believed he was being set up for failure. His mind replayed the montage of old memories of his father setting him up. His father often said that he was more than capable of beating the other students at school sports, and academics. However, he did not manage to make school badminton captain and get into his first place university due to his grades, his father expressed disappointment in him for not working harder. 

The job offer flooded him with emotional pain and reminded him of his father’s rejections, replacing his thinking with the usual analytical judgement with illogical emotional impulses. He asked the managing partner, “why put me through all this trouble?. If you want me to leave, just say so. I know a set-up when I see it. You don’t even have to ask for my resignation, I’m giving it to you now. My client just made a life-altering decision based on an emotional impulse and based on a wrong interpretation of what was really happening. He really believed that the offer of employment was a set for failure and that company was looking for ways to get rid of him. What my client didn’t know was that the Managing Partner thought just the opposite, but my client’s mental filter and core beliefs wouldn’t allow him to accept it. 

What my client didn’t hang around to hear was that the managing partner was willing to admit that the company had made the mistake of assigning the job to relatively inexperienced executives without giving them the authority and job security that they needed to accomplish the task. My client was going to be offered a senior management role an attractive raise in his income, an extended contract and outright authority to do whatever needed to be done. The job was given to someone else within the company. Acting on the irrational and the emotional impulse, my client ran for cover to protect himself as he had done with his father before. 

The example of my client’s story illustrates that there are really two parts to managing conflict well. The first is managing ourselves, our inner experience, thoughts, perceptions and emotions, the other is managing our emotional behaviour. What we say and do during sensitive conversations is so important. If my client had learnt about the steps he would have recognised the triggers inside of him and most importantly, he would not have talked himself out of a job. If he had just taken time to hear his boss, he could have spent some time thinking coolly and logically about the job offer before giving his answer. And whether he accepted the offer or not, he would have made a rational informed decision and the outcome would have been much more positive. It would have strengthened him with his boss rather than weakening and subsequently defeating him. 

Concilium is structured around a model about managing reactions and learning about the phases and steps which make it most likely that you will succeed in your interaction with others as you step up to conflict and sensitive conversations. Whether as an individual, in a group setting, leaders, executives or managers, clients will learn how: 

  • To identify and make a list of the issues that trigger the conflict
  • Issues can be handled differently
  • Leverage different kinds of assertive and accommodating behaviours that will realise the value and stretch opportunities for growth in conflict situations