Most of us spend a lot of time interacting with our coworkers. Being surrounded by the right teams can make long hours and challenging projects a lot more bearable. Getting along with our colleagues can make work fun.

In this best-of podcast, Kellogg Insight offers advice on how to make the most of your work relationships. We hear from Kellogg School faculty Ellen Taaffe, a clinical assistant professor of leadership, and Eli Finkel, a professor of management and organizations, about the thorny task of giving feedback. We also hear from Jeanne Brett, a professor of management and organizations, about how to resolve workplace disputes.

Podcast Transcript

Jessica LOVE: Most of us spend a good chunk of our lives interacting with coworkers. Depending on who your coworkers are, this can be a great thing.

Emily STONE: Hi Jess, how are you? I brought in some muffins this morning if you want any.

Michael SPIKES: Hey, I meant to tell you yesterday that the presentation you gave was on point.

LOVE: Or it can make for some long, frustrating, dysfunctional days in the office.

STONE: Who left their fish in the microwave? Again.

SPIKES: You know, you might want to be here when the meeting starts next time.

LOVE: Perhaps this is why our podcasts on maintaining good interpersonal relationships tend to be some of our most popular.

Welcome to the Kellogg Insight Podcast. I’m your host, Jessica Love.

Today, we will return to some of our previous episodes on cultivating positive relationships at work. We’ll get advice from Kellogg faculty on things like how to have tough conversations, work through conflict, and avoid conflict altogether.

To start with, we’ll hear from producer Fred Schmalz on one of the most dreaded parts of interacting with people you manage: giving negative feedback.

[Music interlude]

Fred SCHMALZ: After decades in the corporate world, Ellen Taaffe is now a clinical assistant professor of leadership and director of women’s leadership programming at the Kellogg School. She recognizes that a lot of us are pretty reluctant to give feedback, particularly negative feedback.

Ellen TAAFFE: I believe that most people are afraid to give feedback because they don't want to come off as mean. They don't want to be disliked, and they certainly don't want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

I've had to get ready for the tough conversation of giving feedback, and I knew that this was going to be really difficult to receive. And sometimes I've even started a conversation with, "This is going to be a tough conversation.”

SCHMALZ: She also advises knowing exactly what the other person’s career goals are. That way, when you tell people why their performance isn’t measuring up, you can frame it as helping them understand what they need to do in order to get where they want to go. It helps, too, to tie the feedback you’re giving to your organization’s larger goals. That encourages the listener to hear it as objective information rather than as a personal attack.

TAAFFE: The more you can explain objectively what was happening and why it matters for the individual's development, for their career, for the business, the better off you are and they are in being able to understand it and to act upon the feedback.

SCHMALZ: The people getting feedback are also more likely to accept it as fair and actionable if they know exactly what your expectations are—and that everyone in that role is being judged by the same standard.

TAAFFE:  When you're managing a team, and team members are in similar positions or have similar responsibilities, you want to be clear on expectations and your criteria and apply equally across. People want to be treated objectively. If you operate that way, you become a respected leader and manager of others. And then there's no surprises, which is what we all want.

SCHMALZ: One way to both soften the emotional impact of negative feedback and make it more helpful is to remember that people’s weaknesses are often the flip side of their strengths.

For example, the executive who sometimes makes decisions a little too rashly is probably the same one who’s great at taking action when necessary. The employee who doesn’t speak up enough in meetings is often the same person who’s really good at supporting the other members of his team and letting them shine.

So when opportunities for improvement are framed in the context of someone’s strengths, feedback becomes a developmental tool, not a marker of deficiency. The message goes from “Fix your flaws” to “Keep playing to your strengths while you neutralize your weaknesses.”

TAAFFE: For me, the best feedback that I got was feedback that I received over time as I was moving up in the organization. It was communicated to me in a way that combined the strengths I had with the underlying flip side of that.

For example, I have the personality that is calm in the storm. I'm really good in a troubled situation. I can stay cool in it. I can lead others out of that, but my range of excitability or that kind of thing is limited. I got feedback that, "You really need to elevate your energy and stand-up leadership skills," which was really fair feedback.

It was delivered to me in this way that I felt like my boss was rooting for me; it really helped me with how do I remain authentic to myself but recognize I'm in a situation where I've really got to step it up with the sales team.

[Music interlude]

LOVE: One of the most helpful conversations we’ve had about giving feedback was with Eli Finkel, a psychologist and Kellogg professor, who is also the author of the book The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work. As the title of his book suggests, Finkel primarily studies romantic relationships. But many of the lessons he’s learned from his research apply to the office, too.

Here’s what he had to say.

FINKEL: One thing that all of us have to remember when we're giving feedback is that people will receive the feedback on multiple levels. So we are probably focusing on the content that we're conveying that says, “You need to do better about X,” for example, but the person receiving the feedback often does hear that, but much more loudly hears things like “You don't value me” or “Who are you to judge me?”

LOVE: So when you’re delivering feedback—whether it’s to your spouse about the dishes piling up in the sink or to your employee about an overdue report—be aware that what you’re saying and what the other person is hearing may not be the same thing.

It’s also incumbent on us not to get defensive when we’re on the receiving end of feedback, no matter how unwarranted what we’re hearing may seem in that moment. It’s one thing to get negative feedback about our performance at work. It’s another thing to react in a way that shows we can’t handle the truth.

FINKEL: It may be that the feedback isn't totally accurate, isn't totally fair. It's one person's perception. Fair enough. But in the moment at least, behave like an adult and take the feedback standing up. You're a big boy or a big girl. And getting defensive in the moment is almost uniformly going to be counterproductive.

LOVE: That doesn’t mean that you have to swallow every unfair criticism that comes along, of course. It simply means that responding to negative feedback in a reactive, rather than a proactive, way is not in your best interest. This is one instance in which holding your tongue may be a smart strategy.

FINKEL: It may well be that you have compelling counterarguments—and that you really feel like they're important to share with your supervisor—on why you have the perception that the feedback wasn't well placed. But the time to give that rebuttal is not sitting there in the room when you're first receiving the feedback. Process it. Think carefully about it. Try to see the validity in the feedback, because more often than not there will be some validity, and if you have something you want to say in response, take some time and word it in a polite, respectful way, but not right then.

[Music interlude]

LOVE: OK, now you’ve mastered the delicate art of giving and taking constructive criticism. But sometimes that’s not enough to head off a serious interpersonal problem. So a couple years ago, producer Emily Stone explored how to work through conflict.

First, she talked to Jeanne Brett, a professor of management and organizations at Kellogg who specializes in dispute resolution. Brett suggests looking at conflict through a cultural lens, to see if that may be at the root of the problem. Because there are many ways that cultural differences can cause confusion and conflict in the workplace.

BRETT: Starting with issues of fluency and language; preexisting prejudices; differences in norms about what constitutes a workday; differences in how do you go about making decisions; differences in when do you stop collecting information and when do you make a decision; differences in what “yes” means.

STONE: Failing to recognize that any one of these cultural differences is causing conflict or frustration can come at a cost.

BRETT: Misunderstanding can lead to high emotion that gets in the way of the team doing its work. People’s relationships get involved. People won’t work together, and you lose business.

STONE: Take, for example, a tense moment Brett’s daughter recounted recently. She works in France and was helping an American client set up a wine-tasting week. After picking a hotel, her American client sent a 15-page boilerplate contract to the hotel owner. To the Americans, it was just a pro forma part of doing business. Not so for the hotelier.

BRETT: He was furious because they had had an oral agreement about what he was going to provide, what they were going to pay, etc. He had taken it personally that they didn’t trust him to provide what it was he had committed to, and he was deeply offended.

STONE: In retrospect, understanding that the written contract would offend the Frenchman, and warning him in advance of its arrival, would have prevented a lot of problems—which is a key piece of advice Brett gives.

BRETT: The first thing is to try to kind of inoculate people in advance.

STONE: Better not to have the conflict in the first place than to have to fix the broken pieces after the fact. Take this story that Brett was told about a manager brought in to lead a newly assembled software team.

BRETT: He said, “I know I have an accent. I know it’s difficult to understand me. We cannot let my accent get in the way of the effectiveness of this team. If you don’t understand what I’m saying, we’ve got to go to the board, we’ve got to draw pictures, you’ve got to talk to me.” That just diffused the whole problem. He said, “after a while, we got really good with his accent.”

STONE: But that kind of forethought—being able to see a problem before it arises—or at the very least being able to recognize something as a cultural conflict when it does arise, requires a particular mindset. And it’s one leaders would be wise to hire for, Brett says.

This means looking for people who have their own multicultural experience. Or for people who are, as Brett puts it, “culturally metacognitive.”

BRETT: That’s a big word. What it means is these are people who, when you put them in a situation, they will work it. They will try to analyze it from a cultural perspective. People who are culturally metacognitive are more likely to say, “Okay, this behavior is very strange. This is not what I’m used to. It looks like an obstacle. Why is this person behaving this way? I wonder if it’s culture.”

[Music interlude]

LOVE: But, of course, not all conflict stems from cultural misunderstandings. Sometimes people are just difficult. In those cases, Eli Finkel again weighs in with some solid advice from the realm of romantic relationships. Here he is talking with Emily.

FINKEL: There are some general principles that are effective if you want to learn how to navigate conflict. And those principles, for the most part, should apply across a broad range of relationship contexts.

For example, it’s generally a good strategy toward defusing conflict to convey that you’ve understood what the other person said, and they feel very much heard. You can say, “I understand how you got there, and I respect that point of view. Here are some concerns that I have, and here’s why I disagree with you about your conclusion.” That general approach is going to be wise on average across almost all the circumstances you’re going to face.

STONE:  Finkel conducted research that shows how a tiny exercise—one that takes just 21 minutes of your time a year—could help your relationships.

The researchers recruited 120 married couples for a two-year experiment. The first year, every four months, the couples wrote for seven minutes about the biggest conflict they and their spouse had recently had. The next year, half the couples had an additional seven-minute writing task every four months.

FINKEL: They tried to think about the conflict from the perspective of a neutral third party who wants the best for all involved.

STONE: The couples were also instructed to think about why it’s hard to adopt a neutral perspective in the heat of a disagreement. The results after a year were impressive.

FINKEL: Those people experienced significant benefits to their marriage. Higher levels of relationship satisfaction, higher levels of intimacy, even higher levels of passion, which the long-married listeners in your group probably know is a little bit of the holy grail in marriage—how do we sustain high levels of passion over time? I see no reason why it couldn’t be an effective way of helping people think constructively and feel better about their workplace, about their coworker experiences.

STONE: So, every four months, leaders could ask their staff to sit down and write about workplace frustrations.

FINKEL: And then have them try to think about it from a broad perspective. Let’s imagine that there are some omniscient, omnipotent perspective that you can adopt where you’re just trying to think about what’s best for everybody. What’s best for you, what’s best for your coworkers, what’s best for the organization.

STONE: The mechanism at work here is simply a bit of detachment, just getting outside of your own head.

FINKEL: We tend to experience conflict right through the perspective of our own eyeballs.

STONE: Meaning, it’s easy to focus on how everyone is annoying you. But much harder to see how you’re annoying them.

FINKEL: What adopting this neutral, benevolent third-party perspective helps us do is see the little foibles that your coworker has, or that annoying customer has, from a broader perspective, which helps you avoid just finger-pointing at it and try to adopt some perspective and some sympathy or even some empathy for it—but also helps you get a little bit of perspective on the ways in which you yourself might be contributing to some of the issues that might be happening personally with a client, or with a coworker, or what have you.

[Music Interlude]

LOVE: This program was produced by Jessica Love, Fred Schmalz, Emily Stone, and Michael Spikes.

Special thanks to guests Ellen Taaffe, Eli Finkel, and Jeanne Brett.

And in the spirit of giving and receiving feedback, we’d love to get some feedback from you. Leave us a review wherever you get your podcasts.

As a reminder, you can find us on iTunes, Google Play, or our website, where you can read more about maintaining personal and professional connections. Visit us at insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu. We’ll be back next month with another episode of the Kellogg Insight podcast.