How to decrease conflict and confusion at work

Have you ever felt sure you and a work colleague were on the same page, only to find out they did something completely different behind your back and left you stuck dealing with the change?

A few years ago, my boss gave me an assignment to add images to her PPT presentation, which I did–returning it to her by my deadline. At our next group meeting, though, she started up the presentation and asked me to explain why I’d chosen the layout for each slide. I was befuddled. Why? I’d expected her to do as I would have done and review all the slides, changing them as she wished.

Did my boss and I have an agreement about the deliverable? I had believed we had, but clearly we did not.

David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, created the SCARF model that helps identify the ways in which workplace anxiety are triggered. They include:

  • Status
  • Certainty
  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness
  • Fairness

When we don’t create agreements, we inadvertently decrease certainty and relatedness, and may wind up decreasing status, autonomy, and fairness. (The flip side of all that? Increased confusion, conflict, shame, micromanaging, and arbitrariness. What a mess!!)  Naturally this triggers a cascade of anxiety, which can be calmed by making agreements.

Dr. Laurie Ford, one of the co-authors of The Four Conversations, says that an agreement happens only when two people discuss what the deliverable will be, when it will be finished, why do this at all, who will be affected, and how it will be delivered*. What I find exciting about agreements is that either the person responsible for creating the deliverable or the person receiving the deliverable can take charge of ensuring an agreement is made.

If you are needing someone else to perform a task for you, questions like these will help you see for yourself if you’ve made an agreement. If you haven’t, make an appointment for a followup conversation as soon as possible to improve clarity.

  1. Have I clarified and shared all of the specifications of the deliverable with the sender/provider? (What exactly must be delivered, by when? What restrictions are there on how the work must be done?)
  2. Have I communicated the purpose for which are we engaging in this task with the provider?
  3. How will we both address changes in the agreement?

If you are responsible for sending/providing a deliverable, ask yourself questions like these to avoid confusion:

  1. Do I know who will be affected by what I provide?
  2. What exactly must be delivered? (i.e. In my story above, my deliverables did not include only the finished slides, but also a presentation with explanations for what I did with each slide.) What are the restrictions about how the work must be done? Who can I finalize the deliverable specifications with?
  3. Where will my resources come from? Who am I relying on to provide me with input/materials before I can create my deliverable? Can I finalize agreements with them? (see previous list)
  4. Where will my deliverables go? How will they be used?
  5. Do I know how to address changes in the agreement?

I suggest printing this article and keeping the questions handy the next time you are making or receiving assignments. And, if you find that workplace anxiety due to confusion and lack of clarity are a significant problem, a “Work Product Map” may be the answer to your dreams. Drop me a note if you’re interested in learning more.

Wishing you ease and fulfilment,



*I’ve recently had some discussions with clients about whether the “how” is about delivery or execution — in other words, does it matter how the deliverable is created? How the job is done? This may depend on the situation. If you are overly directive about how the job gets done, you might rob the other person of their opportunity for creativity and contribution. My guess is that if you are dissatisfied with how they are doing the work, you may have been unclear about all the specifications of what is to be delivered, for whom (ultimately), and why (for what purpose)?

Amy Kay Watson coaches talented, brilliant, tender-hearted professionals (like you!) to discover their destiny, own their power, and live their purpose with courage, humor, and compassion–even in a corporate environment. To learn more, sign up for the bimonthly newsletter with content from the blog, videos, and podcasts here. Connect with Amy on Facebook and Twitter, or email her directly via


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