Last week I wrote about courageous questions for managers to consider. Given the heightened responsibility and authority involved in managing, it may seem more obvious that critical inquiry is an essential part of that job. Taking an employee perspective, however, shows us that asking reflective questions provides huge benefits on both sides of the tracks.
As an employee, you face work challenges from a different perspective. You may feel silenced by the authority of your superiors, or struggle to get along with coworkers. It might be difficult to hear important feedback from colleagues or superiors, or perhaps you have more specific up-close knowledge of a problem that is only a distant matter on paper for decision makers up the hierarchy, causing frustration or misunderstanding. Asking the courageous questions can help you to build self-awareness and make intentional decisions regarding communication and group work. Aside from these benefits, career advancement comes from being a leader of good practice before any one else has designated you a leader. Sowing conflict, on the contrary, rarely helps anyone get ahead. Taking up the challenge of reflection and improvement on your own terms can be a positive and empowering experience.
As with managers, employees need to think about communication; it can be the key to resolving issues, or simply to making the next step in your career. Sometimes it’s hard to take instruction or feedback, especially if you’ve had bad experiences with authority or competitive coworkers (as so many of us have!). But perhaps this communicator has better interests than you’re giving them credit for. Are you relying on assumptions about motive or conduct in your exchanges at work? Are you listening before you judge? Are fully present and engaged when dealing with a challenging topic?
Conversely, it’s easy to feel silenced as an employee, even if you know you have important contributions to make. Perhaps you have a grievance that needs to be dealt with. In this case, consider whether you have made a sufficient effort to communicate your ideas, or whether your attempts to do say have been done in a strategic, respectful way. Maybe you just need to air fact that you feel silenced. If you feel this kind of communication is blocked, can you identify where the blockage to open communication might be? Can you change your strategy? If this isn’t enough, ask yourself what the next constructive step might be, where else you might be able to turn, instead of getting discouraged and letting conflict take over.
In working groups, it’s not just the designated leaders who can affect the dynamics. Your coworkers and collective success may be one of the best resources available to you, but if the horizontal relationships are troubled and conflict ridden it’s going to be difficult to get ahead together. Are there group members who are marginalized? Is there trust among the group? Are you actively listening to one another?
These reflections can be tough; sometimes in the moment it just feels better to externalize workplace issues and immediately blame someone else. But having the courage to engage in critical inquiry is much more likely to serve you in the long run. The situation might be partially out of your control, and there may be other parties involved who need to change their behavior, but having asked yourself the hard questions you are much more likely to approach the situation with confidence and a cool-headed, mindful strategy. Over time you may even find that you are not the only to notice your constructive approach!
For a complete list of questions to consider for your own critical inquiry, download my TIPS for Leaders: Courageous Questions about Communication & Conflict.
Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.