Be an Alien Anthropologist: Creative Conflict Strategies

Updated: Feb 18, 2019

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People are different. We each bring our own stories, assumptions, and worldview to work with us.

Sometimes, you have a clear understanding of the ways in which you see and experience the world differently than your co-workers and how this plays out in behavior.

At other times, the behavior of those with whom you work can be simply perplexing. It’s like you are from different planets. And in some sense, you are.

When something about another person’s behavior is alien to us, the impulse is usually to judge and reject that behavior. We all judge. It’s unavoidable. Frequently, it’s even useful.

Everyone is tasked with making thousands of decisions each day based on partial bits of data and split-second impressions. We sort this information by making lots of small judgements based on our expectations of the world around us. Some of this is conscious, but most of this activity is subconscious and instinctual.

When the world doesn’t behave the way we expect, we tend to reject what doesn’t fit.

Many workplace conflicts are more about these mismatched expectations than they are about actual concrete disagreements. These “fights” typically revolve around radically different interpretations of a shared experience or event. Those differing interpretations are rooted in the diversity of life experiences and beliefs among colleagues.

When this happens, hold back on the judgement. Instead, become an alien anthropologist.

Try approaching the situation as if you have landed on a strange and alien planet orbiting a far-away star. Assume that your usual assumptions will not apply. The beings here are different and have evolved according to a radically different set of needs, assumptions about life, and expectations.

When you meet a Gorn at work, don’t fight like Kirk. Investigate like Spock.

As an alien anthropologist, you are not here to judge. Instead, be curious. Learn their ways and how they think.

When leading conflict as an alien anthropologist, practice the following strategies:

Model curiosity by admitting that you are surprised by what is happening and you are interested in learning more about it. Unexpected behavior frequently leads to toxic gossip and backlash unless someone demonstrates how to have an open and productive discussion about what is happening. The natural tendency is to judge and reject the novel and unexpected. Avoid this by taking an explicit and public position of curiosity as a leader.