Destructive conflicts should not be confused with the constructive process of conflict that often propels creativity and innovation. Constructive conflict is based on a spirited competition of ideas and strategies and aims to improve the organization. Constructive conflicts can drive higher levels of motivation, creativity and performance. Destructive workplace conflict, on the other hand, is grounded in personal irritation, grievance and anger. Destructive conflict wastes time and energy and stifles productivity.
My colleague, Bob Kagey, recently wrote a great guest post in this space about workplace conflict from a manager’s perspective. For today’s post I would like to talk about workplace conflict from an employee’s point of view.
If you have ever been in the midst of a destructive personal conflict with a coworker you know just how gut-wrenching an experience it can be. Work is hard enough without the extra stress burden imposed by the drama and animosity that accompany interpersonal conflict. This type of conflict is often characterized by a knot in the stomach during the commute into work and a sense of anger and outrage on the ride home.
So what can you do if you’re embroiled in a workplace conflict with a coworker?
- Avoid the temptation to withdraw. Don’t waste time hoping that the problem will just disappear. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to stick your head in the sand. Facing the problem directly might make you feel uncomfortable but it is the right strategy. Communicate a willingness to discuss the problem.
- Try not to personalize the conflict. Workplace conflicts rarely consist of one party who is 100% right and another who is 100% wrong. Reducing the conflict to “I’m right and they are wrong” or “I’m good and they are bad” is a losing strategy. Try to approach the conflict with an open mind and genuine curiosity about how the other person sees things. Focus on problem-solving not on personality.
- Think about what you can do differently. This is hard to do when you are feeling like the injured party (see #2 above) but ultimately the only behavior you control is your own. If you are willing to consider what changes you can make to improve the situation perhaps the other party will respond in kind.
- It is not necessary to agree completely about past events. Rehashing competing versions of past events can be a dead end that gets in the way of finding a viable path forward. Focus on making new agreements and communicating in ways that develop trust.
- Address issues face-to-face. Email is not an effective channel for resolving conflict.
- Get the right people involved. If you just can’t work things out with a coworker on your own seek help (advice and/or mediation) from HR or management.
- Keep the wrong people out of it. Do not gossip or try to get coworkers to take sides. It makes you look unprofessional. Also, your remarks about the other party in a conflict might be repeated or distorted and end up making the situation even worse.
If you have a story to share about how you dealt with a coworker conflict I’d love to hear it. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave your story below in the comments section.