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Interpersonal Conflict at Work

April 4, 2011

We choose our friends but we don’t choose our co-workers. It is inevitable that there will be interpersonal conflict in any workplace. It’s important that we approach conflict resolution in a manner that fosters success for all concerned. We hear a lot about stress and stress management these days - do yoga, go for a walk, exercise, meditate, eat right and get quality sleep. Despite our best efforts, stress affects our personal and work lives, and even relatively trivial acts by co-workers can raise our blood pressure. Conversely, if a co-worker has become irritated by something we do or have done, we’ll be on the receiving end of their anger. We need a new mindset for dealing with workplace conflict, regardless of the source or nature of the problem.

A new mindset about resolving conflict

Forget about “I’m right, you’re wrong”. While there may be truth in it, the fact is that if you win, your co-worker ‘loses’. Even if the facts totally support you, your co-worker will be grinding her teeth whenever she sees you and you will have lost a potential ally. If the matter has been made public, and someone feels embarrassed or humiliated as a result, the lingering damage to that relationship can be disastrous. Your goal should be to foster productivity and respectful interactions at work, not to ‘win’ a battle. Before you initiate anything, take stock of your emotional state and your emotional intelligence. No one thinks clearly, listens well, or makes decisions well when they are emotionally charged or stressed out. You wouldn’t want to start something at work, only to discover that you are actually the one with the problem!

Are you the problem?

If you haven’t tried any of the stress management activities noted above, give them a try. At work, however, you can’t just drop into downward facing dog (a yoga position) every time you feel overwhelmed. What you can do, however, is to organize your work days to reduce the chance of feeling overwhelmed. Devise and commit to a schedule that works for you. Perhaps you let all phone calls go to voicemail between 10 and 11:30 am so you can complete your reports quickly and in peace. If you need more quiet than is available at your desk, move to a quieter location to complete reports or to make phone calls. Make your workspace comfortable and organized.

Don’t accept more work if you cannot manage it, or, ask that other duties be reduced or eliminated in order for you to take on the new work. Don’t work through your lunch hour. You need the break. If you find it necessary to do so on a consistent basis, either you are not using your time efficiently or you are overloaded and heading for burnout. If overloaded, speak to your manager immediately. In economic downturns, employees lucky enough to have jobs often do the work of more than one employee, so be especially attentive to overload and burnout, as these can cause serious health problems.

No, it is about them

Okay, you are certain that you are not the source of the problem. Your co-worker really is doing something that would drive anyone nuts or is having an adverse effect on the workplace or the clients, so what should you do about it? Remember that how and when you approach the co-worker will have a big influence on how the co-worker reacts, and if the co-worker is stressed out, he or she will probably react defensively or emotionally. Discuss the matter respectfully and in private. Focus on the actual event(s) or behaviors that are bothering you and don’t make personal comments or judgments about the co-worker. Explain the problem and express how it impacts you or your work. If you can’t express this without feeling silly or petty, then reconsider whether there is a problem after all. Respect differences: your co-workers can be as effective as you are even if their work styles differ from yours. If there really is a problem that affects you or the clients, then sit down and talk about other strategies or policies that would work for each of you. The goal here is resolution, not domination or revenge. You want to be able to look each other in the eye afterward and work together comfortably after this meeting. If the problem affects everyone, let your manager deal with it, since that’s what he or she is paid to do.

In extreme situations, when management’s intervention hasn’t succeeded in resolving the problem, it may be time to look elsewhere. Sometimes bad situations push us in a direction that turns out to be wonderful!

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