About halfway through every one of my conflict management workshops, a participant asks about that one coworker who is difficult, creates conflict, or just seems to be a general pain in everybody’s derriere. When I first started getting this question, I nodded along, thinking “yeah, this person is probably bringing in a lot of stuff from home and is having trouble separating home and work.” But then I started asking some questions about how people communicate with this human ‘lightning rod for conflict’, and how the organization handles the issue.
Conflict is a systems issue
Even though my leadership model is heavily focused on systems issues, and I’m a social worker who considers the impact of environment on individual behavior, I still learn this lesson over and over again: the reality of a situation can only be understood when you get everybody’s perspective, and when you look at all of the environmental influences on peoples’ behavior. It turns out that in most cases, people don’t let others know when they feel upset about a shared interaction. When the situation gets to a crisis point, the organization tends to avoid the responsibility for managing the conflict and either pretend it’s not happening or move the offensive party elsewhere – to another cubicle, office, or department – with little to no explanation.
Developing empathy – a critical skill in conflict management
Now when I receive questions about ‘problem employees’, I assess the situation as thoroughly as I can, and then I invite the workshop participants to occupy the other person’s shoes for a few minutes. Imagine that you have just been hired, and you have a couple of difficult interactions with other people in your office. You notice that word of these interactions has spread, because you can feel the tension and dislike from other people in your department. You feel constantly on edge and your coworkers start acting a bit passive-aggressive. You start to feel resentful, afraid, and justified in actively defending yourself against real and imagined attacks. Somehow, you have become the “problem employee”. After a few months, your supervisor calls you into her office to explain that you are being moved to another department. You ask why, and she replies that the other department needs another person, and she thought you’d be a good fit. You know that she’s not being completely truthful, but you don’t feel like you can have an honest conversation at this point. How would you feel?
My friend Neil, who works in a team of about 7 people in the IT industry, told me a story about his coworker, Chris. Chris was the guy that everybody loved to hate – he was just hard to get along with, seemed to resist relationship overtures, and tended to create conflict. Neil and his coworkers had spoken with their supervisor a few times about Chris, and the supervisor said they needed to work it out themselves. One day, Neil started thinking about other work situations he had been in, and the factors that seemed to contribute to conflict. He realized that Chris just happened to be the only remote employee on the team – he lived in California, and everybody else worked in an office in Florida. Chris never had the opportunity to have those casual interactions that build relationships in the workplace – lunch, coffee breaks, happy hour. Neil realized that he and his team had turned Chris into a conflict scapegoat.
The fact is that conflict is uncomfortable. We don’t want to address conflict we have with our coworkers because doing it well requires us to be vulnerable and share our feelings, as well as take responsibility for our part in the conflict. Ouch. It is so much easier to believe that we never contribute to conflict, we never hurt other people, and we never make mistakes. It took me a long time, but I finally accepted the fact that people have come away with hurt feelings after an interaction with me, and it will happen again. And again. And again. The only way to repair and maintain a good relationship with somebody else is to be proactive about conflict management. They let me know when I’ve hurt them, I let them know when they’ve hurt me, we both take responsibility for our actions.
In the workplace, certain people can become conflict scapegoats. Maybe they seem abrasive, or they come from a different culture that we don’t understand, or they remind us of somebody who hurt us when we were young. Instead of addressing our inevitable conflicts with our coworkers when we get hurt, we attribute our poor department or organizational culture to this one person – they become the vessel for everybody’s hurt and anger so we don’t have to deal with it.
When conflict turns into burnout and bullying
Most of us work in an environment where conflict is not managed well. When you feel upset by an interaction, do you address it with the other individual(s) right away, or do you tend to think “oh, it’s not that important” or “that’s just how they are”. In the first case, you are underestimating the effect these seemingly small upsets can have in the organization (especially when they pile up), and in the second case, you are making negative assumptions about a person’s character. The first is a recipe for burnout, the second can lead to uncivil work behavior and bullying.
We can manage conflict better
It is incredibly hard to change behavior patterns, especially interrelational behavior patterns. If we want to prevent burnout and increase workplace civility, we must learn to quickly and respectfully address the anger and hurt we feel after an interaction. Otherwise, we will carry those emotions with us and every time we have a difficult interaction at work, negative emotions about past experiences will become re-agitated. If your challenging interactions tend to be with one or two individuals, the resentment that builds will likely lead to uncivil work behavior or even bullying. You will become burnt out and will also be contributing to an unhealthy work environment.
If you can learn to manage your own conflict well, others will take note and relationships will start to improve. At first, it may seem like conflict is increasing – that’s because you have to work through all the conflict and hurt feelings that went unmanaged for so long. If this sounds hard, it is – but it’s absolutely worth it, and it gets easier with practice. Here are some tips:
- Role play with your family members or friends outside of work. If you decide to work out a conflict with a coworker, go through what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it with somebody else you do not work with. Ask for feedback about the best way to say what you need to say while still being kind and respectful.
- Use emotional granularity to find a solution. Emotional granularity is your ability to get very specific with your emotions. For example, instead of angry, do you feel betrayed, disappointed, or outraged? Do you feel happy, or are you overjoyed, content, or gratified? Emotional granularity, or the ability to choose the emotion that exactly describes how your feeling, helps you process your emotions more effectively and is a great first step to figuring out how to address the situation that is causing you to be “in your feelings”. I developed a worksheet that can help you learn emotional granularity, and will also take you through the steps to turn your emotion into solutions. Try it!
- Conflict coaching. A good conflict coach will help you look at all the individual, relational, and organizational influences that may be contributing to your conflict. They won’t tell you what to do, but instead guide you through a process to determine what you want to get out of the conflict, and the best way to do it. You will learn great relational and organizational conflict management skills that you will be able to use in all areas of your life, not just work. If you are interested in learning more about conflict coaching, please contact me.
Effective conflict management key to long-term organizational health
If you want to work in a healthy, psychosocially safe work environment, everybody needs to learn good conflict management. Especially with the recent changes in how we work so that we can keep as many people as possible safe from covid-19, conflict is going to increase, if it hasn’t already. Aside from that, human resources experts are consistently identifying conflict management as much-needed soft skill in the workplace. Trust me, you cannot go wrong when you invest your time and money in learning conflict management skills.