Workplace conflict: Can we talk about it?

One man's idea of what's irksome is another's notion of fun. Pinching food, playing office pranks and forcing colleagues to listen to your phone's loud or annoying ringtone are big sources of fury.

Most of us see ourselves as the good guys in work conflict situations, and therein lies the problem, says Rita de Brun

IF you observed a pack of animals of the same species cooped up together in adjoining fresh-air-free cubicles from 9am to 5pm, so as to perform seemingly endless tasks to tight deadlines, would you be surprised if they, feeling a little claustrophobic, irritable and trapped, snapped at one another from time to time? Of course, you wouldn’t.

Yet when it comes to ourselves, eking out a living in similar conditions, we tend to fail, whenever a co-worker has a go at us, to see the mundane inevitability of it all.

In his Harvard Business Review blog, organisational psychologist Ben Dattner recently asserted that while we tend to blame co-workers for conflict, most office strife isn’t caused by personality, but by situational dynamics. Yet, if you ask anyone to pinpoint the main source of contention in their workplace, chances are they’ll mention someone resembling Dwight Schrute, the thoroughly creepy character played by Rainn Wilson in the NBC TV series The Office.

Ask the same individuals to name the character in that programme who they believe most closely resembles them in terms of popularity and, even if they are male, chances are they won’t name Dwight. They won’t because most of us see ourselves as the good guys in work conflict situations, and therein lies the problem — we point the finger instead of digging deep.

Statistically, the employee who hasn’t experienced conflict in the workplace is a rare specimen indeed. According to the CPP Global Human Capital Report: Workplace Conflict and How Businesses Can Harness it to Thrive, 85% of US employees surveyed said they experienced conflict to some degree, with 27% confirming that they had witnessed a negative encounter morph into personal attack.

According to the report, surveyed employees admitted spending 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflict, an activity that cost management a cool $359 (€265) billion in paid hours.

As for the leading causes of office angst, research documented in July of this year in the British Psychological Society’s Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, showed that worrying at work about family conflict leads to clashes with colleagues.

According to a LinkedIn survey on the topic, the leading workplace peeve is individuals who don’t take ownership for their actions. Constant complainers rank second place on the list of office irritants, followed closely by messy common areas, meetings beginning late or going on too long, and individuals who don’t respond to emails.

Of course, one man’s idea of what’s irksome, is another’s notion of fun. Pinching food belonging to someone else, playing office pranks and forcing colleagues to listen to your phone’s loud or annoying ringtone are the biggest sources of fury among US, Japanese and Indian office workers respectively. And while it’s one thing to be mildly outraged by the appalling office antics of co-workers, it’s another matter entirely when conflict within the workplace is so serious that it causes individuals to take time off work, as was the experience of 25% of those surveyed for the CPP Report.

Given that you’re more likely to go home hungry than go home ill if someone steals your sandwich at work, we can only assume that the triggers for such adverse effects are on a different level entirely. Confirming that this is true, conflict management coach Mary Rafferty of Consensus Mediation says: “Confusion as to responsibilities and opposing views as to how tasks should best be carried out, are just some of the sources of conflict. Others are linked to communication styles — behaviour which might be unhelpful in an office setting.

“The big thing to remember is that conflict in the workplace is totally inevitable. Many have the idea that all should be harmonious, but if that was the case there would be no creativity and no innovation, as everyone would be agreeing with everyone else.

Differences between individuals in the workplace are quite normal and, in fact, healthy if the focus is on work and if it results in improved output, according to Liam Kirwan, director of mediation services at Workplace Options.

The issue is not what to do if problems arise, it’s how to respond when they do,” says Rafferty.

Acknowledging that some have personalities that are ‘not so compatible’ with harmonious working relationships, Rafferty insists that we can still engage with them. We can do that by adapting in a constructive way so as to manage them as best we can,” she says.

As for what determines whether we counter in a constructive or destructive way, Rafferty explains: “Those who learn constructive responses growing up are most likely to ask themselves if perhaps they got it wrong, and whether they should apologise for their part in the triggering situation. They tend to stay calm while considering how to sort things out with a colleague who is clearly annoyed and instead of taking the other’s annoyance personally, they may conclude instead that it is linked to the way the other has learned to be in childhood or in the workplace.

Allison Keating, psychologist at bWell Clinic, recommends FIT (framework for internal transformation) science which she describes as an empirically based, functional and productive way to deal with the inevitable stresses that come with working with people. “It teaches methods of taking ownership of and actively managing our own stress, instead of reacting in an emotionally charged way to others.”

“Work conflict situations need to be approached from a place of compassion rather than conflict,” says Keating. “It helps to remember that while we cannot control or change the personality traits of others, we can be mindful of how we react to them. By being aware of our physical and emotional reactions, we can better understand why a situation evokes irritation, intolerance or anger in us. Instead of wagging the finger at or labelling the so-called workplace offender with negative attributes, we can look a little deeper inside, reflect and accept that we are all different.” As to why so few seem to do that, Keating has no doubt: “Reflection and acceptance take time and effort; gossip and blame do not.”


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