The American Spirit Issue
YOUR CAREER | Managing conflict at work

at work

Dealing with various personalities in your office.


By Ashley Milne-Tyte

Conflict at the office is all but inevitable. It’s hard to work in the same space with others for months or years without some kind of struggle erupting at some point. Still, given how much time you spend at work, dysfunctional office relationships can end up causing such stress that the rest of your life suffers. But there are ways to manage the situation so that your sanity remains (largely) intact.

The aggravating co-worker

There are countless ways conflict between co-workers can wreak havoc in the workplace. Power plays manifest, as one person tries to shine at the expense of a colleague. Then there are the petty gripes over personal habits (loud lunchtime chewing or the hogging of a certain chair) that heat up and begin to simmer as low-level feuds.

James Quick of the Goolsby Leadership Academy at the University of Texas at Arlington says respect is an essential part of the conversation as you try to solve workplace issues.

“When you respect the other person, [you] will transform the interaction in a lot of ways. The question for each of us as peers is: do we want to be in that conflict or not?” In other words, we don’t have to play along. “Step out of the bog,” says Quick.

Business psychologist John Weaver says it’s important for both employees to get some perspective on what they’re doing, “so they can see the situation with more objectivity and find a potential solution.” That, of course, is easier said than done when you may sit in adjacent cubes. But leaving the office for a while, even for an hour at lunch, can help. And try not to be self-righteous.

The American Spirit Issue
YOUR CAREER | Managing conflict at work

“I hate to discover when I’m in conflict with somebody that they have a point,” Weaver adds. “But they almost always do.”

The disparate team

Ah, teamwork. It sounds so positive. But teams are made up of personalities. A common problem on teams, according to Matt Prager, a change management consultant, is when one person grabs credit for someone else’s work when speaking to the boss. While taking credit for someone else’s work undermines the trust people have in the team members, Prager says even when you’re a member of a team, “It’s your responsibility to be your best promoter and publicist. Let the people who matter know what you’ve been up to.”

Quick says sometimes teams don’t agree about what they’re meant to achieve, which can lead to a lot of arguments. In that case, “You need to be very clear about talking through what the mission is for the team,” Quick says. “If the team can’t come to a common understanding on their own, they need to seek guidance externally.” That is, with the big boss.

Anne McSorley of Work Best Consulting says her firm’s most common assignment is to go into companies and work out why a team or department isn’t functioning properly. She gives the example of a team of scientists at a small organization, working on a Department of Defense contract. “They were all very smart, culled from the major tech universities,” she says. “But they were from different cultures and all different ages, so we had cultural issues from where they came from, from the languages they spoke, and generational issues too—the youngest person was 29, the oldest was in his 70s.” The work was starting to slow down, and HR wanted to know why.

McSorley says the team had to learn how to communicate better. She says while the younger team members had a lot to learn from the older ones, the reverse was also true. Yet no one had talked to the team about what she calls “mentoring up”—letting the younger members have as much power and influence as the older ones.

McSorley and her business partner made team members aware of what different expectations they all had for their behavior and discussed their communication styles. She asked them to practice actually speaking to each other in person rather than relying on volleys of email.

Two weeks later, she says, the problem was not completely solved, but it had greatly improved, and productivity was up again.

The nightmare boss

Weaver says employee-employer conflict is particularly tough for the employee to deal with because, well, the other person is your boss. “Because of the unequalness of power, the employee can’t typically fight back directly, so they fight back indirectly,” he says. “They do the minimum at work, or they talk about the boss behind his back.” Or they steal office supplies and view it as getting even. There are better ways of resolving matters, though, than absconding with the Post-Its.

McSorley says most of her work involves helping companies sort out messes that need not have become so serious, if only the employee had spoken up. “The most common kind of conflict is avoidance of conflict,” she says.

Take a scenario where an employee feels micromanaged to the point of frustration. It is worth trying to speak to your boss—before you get to the boiling point—to put forth your case as diplomatically as possible for more autonomy. Just bear in mind that the person may be unwilling or unable to loosen the reins.

Weaver says if you can’t persuade the boss to change his or her behavior, you need to alter your own way of thinking so that you don’t succumb to “victim mentality.” Remember, he says, “You’re not defined by your circumstances—it’s how you choose to be in those circumstances that define you.” Invest in relationships outside of work to help maintain some perspective.

The American Spirit Issue
YOUR CAREER | Managing conflict at work

Showing some love

Of course micromanagers pale in comparison to the underminers of the boss set. Prager advocates a specific tack in this case. The former-Hollywood writer spent years in entertainment companies in shark-like conditions. He says he had every imaginable “power play” problem with his first boss. “He was undermining me, cutting me down, cutting me out of meetings, taking away my projects.” After fighting back with equally unpleasant and unprofessional tactics (“I was on the verge of being fired”) Prager realized something: His boss needed some love.

“He had his own self-esteem issues,” says Prager. “I decided I needed to become a hugger for the emotionally handicapped.” After all, he reasoned, “To what extent is that subtracting from me, treating him the way he needs to be treated?”

He began giving compliments and generally being nice. His boss responded in kind. Prager was promoted twice before leaving the company.

Every workplace conflict situation has its own nuances. But if you can set your emotions aside and try to see things from another perspective, you can come through a difficult period with your integrity.

Ashley Milne-Tyte is a New York-based writer and reporter who specializes in communication issues. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, the New York Daily News, Financial Times and Independent (London). She has reported on numerous aspects of business and the economy for public radio’s Marketplace.

Tips for managing conflict

  • Don’t let the problem fester for too long. John Weaver says most people stew silently for months or longer, then blow up. “The conversation doesn’t go well,” he says. Try and discuss it before you’re fuming.
  • Keep the discussion neutral. “Always use civil language,” says James Quick. “Incivility becomes an accelerant to the conflict.”
  • Try to see the situation from the other person’s perspective. Apologize for your part in it.
  • Put emotions aside—look at the situation coolly, as if from an outsider’s point of view.
  • Work together to find a solution. Calling in HR or the boss can make things even messier as both parties clamor for an advocate.


Managing conflict at work

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