Managing workplace conflict

Co-worker conflict is one of the most difficult forms of workplace stress and can be hard to resolve.

Kadie Black, an outreach coordinator for a kids agency, felt as if her co-worker didn't carry her weight on a team project. Rather than confront her, she mentioned it to another colleague who repeated Black's comments publicly. Friction soon permeated the workplace, making it uncomfortable for the two women to work together again.

We all know that conflicts in the workplace are unavoidable. But now, the number of conflicts are intensifying as workers do more with less and stress levels jump to an all-time high. More than half of all employees say they lost work time worrying about confrontation with a co-worker, according to a survey by researchers at the University of North Carolina.

"Co-worker conflicts can be one of the most difficult forms of workplace stress," says Gus Stieber, national director of sales of Bensinger, DuPont & Associates, an employee assistance program services firm in the US.

Conflicts at work can make people unhappy at home, too. One woman's husband began staying late at work because she spent every dinner complaining about a co-worker who hogged credit for her work.

Most people, like Black, have learned that when you stew about a co-worker who dumps on you or a boss who attacks you in a meeting, the situation usually only gets worse with time.

"If I had to do it again I would've had that conversation and nipped it in the bud," Black says.

According to a new study by the authors of Crucial Conversations, 95 per cent of the workforce struggles to speak up to their colleagues about concerns. Instead, like Black, they use avoidance tactics including complaining, getting angry, doing unnecessary work and avoiding the other person altogether.

"The price of inaction is high," says Donna Flagg, author of Surviving Dreaded Conversations: How to Talk Through Any Difficult Situation at Work. Whether you are dealing with performance, attitude or personality differences, experts like Flagg say speak up, but do it carefully. "These are the conversations that must be had."

Here are some strategies for constructively resolving difficult situations at work.


Your co-worker or boss is confrontational:

Resolving conflict may require some honest talk about what that person is doing that irks you. It's easier than you think, Flagg says. Whether you need to approach your boss, co-worker, employee or customer, the first step is the same: figure out your main points, set up the conversation in your head and practice. Make it clear why what is happening is a problem, why it's worth it to solve the conflict and what a good outcome would be. "Be flexible to multiple outcomes," Flagg says. "There may be a different solution than the one you originally envision."

Disagreements or performance concerns become personal:

When confronting someone at work about performance, personal issues often come up. Keep the conversation on the message.

Angie Mahy, a program administrator with the Centre for Family and Child Enrichment, says each time she sets out to talk to a particular employee who fails to make deadlines, he cries, throws a tantrum or makes an excuse about a personal situation. "There is so much drama and conflict."

But Mahy attended a Dealing With Difficult People workshop recently, where Flagg described personalities and character traits and how to manage them. "I now know the framework to deal with this personality." She now plans to go into the conversation with zero emotion. "This is a business issue and regardless of how the person reacts, I need to stick to my message and deal with the facts."

A teammate has an agenda:

With job satisfaction and employee engagement low, fewer workers care about contributing to the greater good of the company. "Many don't even know what the goal is," says Andre Boykin, Managing Partner of Florida-based CAPITAL iDEA

If you are the company leader, communicate the business strategy. If you are an employee, encourage the boss to do it. "If everyone is focused on the goal, there are fewer conflicts," he says.

Businesses cannot afford to ignore team conflict, Boykin says, and dealing with it effectively can lead to healthy discussions. "People can find agreement when they're trying to achieve the same thing."

A workplace friendship/partnership has soured:

A lawyer recently complained that he has constant conflict with his business partner, and this creates an uncomfortable workplace for all. Some conflicts are so entrenched they need an outside perspective. That's when you need to bring in a third party, such as a human resource employee, mediator or manager from another office or department.

A co-worker is going after your clients:

Fear of layoffs has made some workers ultracompetitive. If you don't understand a co-worker's actions, ask rather than assume bad faith. Of course, you need to ask nicely, such as "I noticed that you called my customer yesterday. Why is that?" Rather than "What the heck are you doing calling my customer?"

Sometimes there's a perfectly good reason and it has nothing to do with trying to annoy you. If there is no explanation, be blunt. Flagg suggests: "I'm uncomfortable with you doing that. Don't do it again."