As people return to the office, the potential for workplace conflicts will likely increase.
Whether you are a peace-loving teammate or a leader planning a smooth transition to the physical workplace, this week’s reading recommendation offers hands-on advice on preventing and resolving workplace clashes.
Avoiding drama in the workplace boosts your performance and your health.
Workplace conflict consultant Anna Maravelas draws on her long experience to explain how to prevent and resolve workplace clashes. She illustrates her suggestions with short case studies which make the book instructive and entertaining. She also enlivens the reading experience for senior managers and HR professions by adding insights from various other disciplines. Managers can put her practical advice to work right away.
- Workplace conflicts unfold in three different kinds of corporate cultures: “hostile,” “indifferent” and “connected.”
- Your attitude toward frustration determines how well you respond to conflict.
- Five factors, including poorly designed systems and processes, cause most workplace conflicts.
- People won’t change unless they experience acceptance.
- Nelson Mandela, the late president of South Africa, decided to improve the system rather than seek revenge.
- Avoiding workplace drama has many benefits.
- Seek understanding. Don’t blame others. Act wisely.
Workplace conflicts unfold in three different kinds of corporate cultures: “hostile,” “indifferent” and “connected.”
Your overall corporate culture determines how conflicts emerge and how best to resolve them.
“The behaviors that destroy trust and connectedness are found in every workplace.” ”
Consider three kinds of corporate culture:
- “Hostile” – Teams at some corporations show open antagonism toward one another. The workplace is full of uptight, unreasonable and unhappy emotion. Members of these organizations feel threatened. They hate going to work and avoid meetings. Hostility saps employees’ energy and leads to lower productivity. Merely working through the critical issues that agitate your team members, and thus, eliminating anger, is not enough, however. Employees’ involvement in their work might diminish if they’ve been using hostility to fuel their energy. On the other hand, if they can move past hostility, and then learn to reconnect and appreciate each other, they can draw on those new links for positive energy.
- “Low energy, indifferent” – In this environment, employees disengage and feel apathetic toward their work. Team members don’t acknowledge their colleagues’ contributions. Without feedback, people don’t know their position in the organization or whether their work has a positive impact.
- “High energy, connected” – In connected workplaces, team members like each other and work together harmoniously. Positive exchanges increase workers’ enthusiasm and productivity. Everybody performs beyond expectations. Employees find these workplaces enjoyable, both personally and professionally.
Your attitude toward frustration determines how well you respond to conflict.
When you encounter a conflict or problem, the situation will trigger one of three possible “assumptions”:
- Point the finger at others – You find others at fault for things that go wrong and see them as the source of any problem. You look for someone to blame. You could experience “flooding,” a biofeedback term for anger that spreads through you. Your anger causes you to enter into a conflict with someone else or with another team. That can lead to a quarrelsome exchange in which you accuse someone of incompetence or a lack of values. Even if your antagonism energizes you, this attitude brings adverse consequences, including a breakdown in relationships. The aftermath of such an argument could lead to the loss of interaction with your colleagues, and that will undermine your work and, possibly, your career.
- Blame yourself – After a fight, when your feelings of righteousness abate, you berate yourself. You blame yourself for not anticipating the situation that got you into the feud. You might feel unhappy and deride your talents or people skills.
- Examine the context – Unlike the previous two “reflexive” responses, a “reflective” response allows you to focus on the context, setting or framework of a problem rather than on the people involved. This strategy allows you to talk to people and get their opinions on how to resolve a problem.
Five factors, including poorly designed systems and processes, cause most workplace conflicts.
Discord in a workplace often results from one of these five circumstances:
- “Is there a baby in the back seat?” – A driver stopped at a traffic light and spent most of the pause scrutinizing her back seat. When the light changed, she did not seem to notice. A man behind her honked impatiently, but the driver got out of her car and appeared to burrow in her back seat. A few minutes later she got back in the front seat and drove away. She later wrote a letter to the editor of a local newspaper. She described how the man behind her had gotten angry when she stopped. She explained that she had an infant in a car seat in the back seat, was scared the little girl had something caught in her throat and wanted to clear it. With that fear in mind she ignored the green light. You may encounter situations at work where hidden restraints – like an unseen baby in the back seat – cause problems. If you can discover the concealed factors driving someone’s behavior, you will learn something of great value.
- “Poorly designed systems and processes” – When systems and processes are poorly structured or instituted, they can prompt workplace clashes. Popular wisdom suggests that people’s characters don’t change, but that is incorrect. Systems and processes can have sweeping effects on behavior. For example, convicts with no possibility of obtaining parole find purpose in raising seeing-eye dogs or providing hospice care for older prisoners. Honest people are repulsed by dishonest behavior, but some may act against their ethical principles if they feel their economic security is threatened.
- “Performance measures that conflict” – Efforts to measure performance can lead to conflicts between different parts of an organization. For example, a hospital once evaluated its nursing division based on customer satisfaction while it evaluated its finance staff on the speed of the discharge process. If employees don’t discuss the inherent contradictions in such measurement processes, antagonism and factionalism can result. Often, the way a company calculates bonuses leads to conflict. Some executives might seek to boost their individual bonuses even if doing so obstructs their ability to collaborate with other parts of the organization.
- “Mutual lack of skill, insight or courage” – Whenever you see someone acting in a hostile, belligerent manner, consider whether the person has the abilities, understanding or backbone to do better. This can save you anguish and disquiet. Use the same method to examine your own behavior. Instead of focusing on your perceived inadequacies, ask yourself how you might approach a dilemma differently if you developed better skills, sought more in-depth comprehension or mustered more courage.
- “Negative reciprocity” – Mutual mistrust can leave two people at odds. A doctor worked in a hospital that provided palliative care for children. He did not approve of primary physicians continuing to treat patients who had no chance of recovery. He thought they kept persevering because they wanted to earn more money. The primary physicians heard about his views and stopped using his services. Later, the doctor re-examined his premise. He wondered if, perhaps, primary doctors continued treating seriously ill children because they felt deeply involved and attached. Until that time, he had not recognized that he had created a negative reciprocity that – with more in-depth consideration and perception – he could help resolve.
People won’t change unless they experience acceptance.
How can you deal with other people’s angry or inappropriate behavior? You don’t have to turn a blind eye to bad behavior, but you can recognize that everyone, yourself included, sometimes acts badly. By acknowledging this fact, you will see that you don’t gain anything by feeling upset over other people’s behavior.
“Authentic warmth wrapped in the belief that we can do better is inspirational.”
Holding others accountable for destructive behavior is important, but the way you accomplish this goal matters immensely. When you act assertively, you can combine that attitude with either anger or warmth in four ways:
- Angry and assertive – People who use this approach demean and insult others. This behavior is rare in most workplaces.
- Angry and not assertive – People who use this tactic mix hostility and low assertiveness to create an attitude of “cold contempt.” When this attitude shows up in the workplace, employees may avoid or conspire against each other.
- Warm and not assertive – People who act this way are often seen as “doormats.”
- Warm and assertive – Unlike the first three combinations, this mixture can yield positive results. People who blend assertiveness with affability remain warm and open even as they ask someone to behave differently. This approach allows you to both resolve a problem and retain the relationship.
When someone tells you an amusing story about someone they find insufferable, guide the storyteller to see that this person may lack workplace skills or social ability and may deserve pity instead of disdain.
Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa, chose to improve the system rather than seek revenge.
When you wonder whether you should blame another person or hold him or her responsible for a problem, consider South Africa’s Nelson Mandela. When he became the leader of his country, he had ample reason to deal severely with his opponents. He chose not to do so because that was the better course of action for the future of South Africa.
From 1948 to 1990, the Afrikaner government – Mandela’s opponents – viciously mistreated Black South Africans. Once he was in a position of power, Mandela could have repaid them in the same coin, but he recognized that such a course wouldn’t heal the nation or bring about a healthy society. Instead, he focused on improving the system instead of blaming individuals.
“The people with whom you interact trust you because you open the dialogue with respect and are willing to learn about their world.”
Working with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the previous president of South Africa, F.W. de Klerk, Mandela led the country through a process of “truth and reconciliation.” His strategy allowed people to admit that they committed political crimes and receive amnesty in return. If someone needed to accept responsibility and refused, the government could prosecute them. The truth and reconciliation process elicited painful testimony from both sides. It helped prevent many court cases that would have taken years to resolve.
Avoiding workplace drama has many benefits.
You and your company can benefit in many ways if you can avoid or resolve workplace conflicts without dramatic flare-ups:
- Your people don’t have to become “emotional idiots” – Other people might see someone as less than emotionally solid if he or she shouts at colleagues who could have their own reasons for how they behave. If you regard others with a spirit of inquiry and benevolence, you can manage your temper and maintain sensible behavior.
- “Health and resiliency improve” – Reducing the number of times you get angry or even enraged protects you against heart disease and boosts your immune system.
- “Positive reciprocity accrues” – The way you speak and act creates reciprocity. As your solution-oriented behavior produces dividends, you can create further positive reciprocity with your coworkers.
- People will want you to work with them – Having the ability to solve problems and create links to your teammates or colleagues will help you develop relationships.
Seek understanding. Don’t blame others. Act wisely.
Most people encounter around 30 frustrating situations every day. In such circumstances, the assumptions you make – to blame others, blame yourself or look for the reason – shape your results and outcomes, for better or for worse.
“Organizations that are deeply engaged in building and maintaining cultures of appreciation seem to do so effortlessly.”
Consider the impact of your behavior patterns throughout your life. If you stop to think about the situations you encounter rather than just reacting to them, you can build an internal attitude of warmth and inquisitiveness. Your colleagues will take you into their confidence because you never criticize other people; instead, you pause to figure them out.
Explore systemic issues such as the challenges governments face, why hospitals lack sufficient staff, why civic officials can’t maintain the highways or why your neighbor acts so weird. Try to gain an understanding of the covert factors at play in your workplace. These insights will allow you to select personal approaches and corporate practices that will make your organization more effective and peaceful.
About the Author
Anna Maravelas is the president of Thera Rising International. She teaches conflict resolution and her work has appeared in publications such as Oprah Magazine and Harvard Management Update.