Conflict management and sexual harassment: The Behaviorist
Over the past month, we've been shocked but not surprised.
We recently sat at the table and laid out graphic stories of our mothers, our friends, our colleagues — as well as our own — tales of sexual harassment like so many cards in a deck. Some of the experiences were of the same suit. Some were face cards, some were only twos but all of them made it into the deck and onto the table.
Statistics show that one in four women has been sexually harassed at work. There’s also the harrowing statistic that between 70 percent and 90 percent don’t report it because they don’t want to endure the possible blowback. Even without the statistics, we’ve known for decades that this is an epidemic from our myriad clients’ experiences, as well as our own. #notsurprised.
This issue is complicated and it’s going to take time, patience and healing to recalibrate. But there’s a piece of it that we want to address. As behaviorists, we’re interested in the “do-over”: the opportunity to dissect past experiences, explore reactions, subsequent consequences and re-envision a different path. With this deck of experiences on the table, we recalled Maya Angelou’s wisdom: “Forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know before you learned it.” Ideally, the following can help other women and men learn now so they don’t have to wish for a do-over button.
There are five classic styles of managing differences. We teach this every day using the Thomas-Killmann Instrument (TKI). When two people want different things, they can choose how assertive they want to be in getting what they want and how cooperative they want to be in helping the other person get what they want. For example, if you decide not to be very assertive or cooperative, that is called avoiding. Avoiding makes sense when you need extra time to learn more or let cooler heads prevail or when you have no ability to change the outcome even with effort.
If you’re not very assertive in getting what you want but very cooperative in helping the other person, that’s accommodating. Accommodating is a go-to style when we want to ingratiate ourselves to another or if we have low power.
Compromise is when you split the difference, and nobody exactly wins but it staves off the revolution. It’s also a time-saver and a predictor of successful marriages.
Collaborating is when both parties are assertive and cooperative. It takes time and effort, but everyone wins.
Incidentally, none of these styles are “good” or “bad.” The goal is to be agile enough to adopt the style that is going to achieve your desired outcome.
We want to highlight the style of competing. Competing is being assertive in getting what you want and uncooperative in helping the other person get what they want. Often we go to competing when the interests are around safety or ethics.
When we began categorizing our stories at the table, we noticed patterns. When we showed up as accommodators, we had the worst results, followed closely by when we attempted to avoid. The style that produced the best outcomes, both personally and professionally, was competing, when we were very assertive in getting what we wanted and not cooperative in helping the other person get what they wanted. Also, high competing is an effective style to reshape cultures of harassment.
Women are often socialized to be accommodators or avoiders when it comes to managing differences. In fact, both of us score as avoiders on our TKI. When we learned to use the competing style with harassers, we were better able to prevent and manage harassment.
New York Times writer Valeriya Safronova recently wrote “When you experience sexual harassment at work,” which gives clear legal advice about what sexual harassment is and options to handle the situation.
Competing might mean contacting a lawyer, but it also might mean directly confronting the person harassing you. Sometimes letting them know that what they are saying or doing is not acceptable is enough to stop the problem. In our online class, Authentic Communication, we offer several tools to prevent sexual harassment.
“The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn, but to unlearn,” said Gloria Steinem. Sexual harassment must not be tolerated. Systems and norms must change in order for standards to rise so we can be more productive, creative and innovative. Let’s help each other by individually and collectively adopting cultures of psychological and physical safety.
Kedren Crosby is president of Work Wisdom LLC, a Lancaster-based firm specializing in organizational culture, communication, collaboration, conflict and coaching. She can be reached at email@example.com. Sarah Colantonio, who also works at Work Wisdom LLC, focuses on communication and mindfulness in the workplace. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.