Workplace conflict: how to defuse a battle of personalities

By Eve Ash

I have worked in numerous environments where this occurs, and most of the time, clashes boil down to differing priorities and ways of getting the work done.

Serious conflict, however, has potential to not only reduce workplace productivity and group morale — it can harm individuals’ emotional equilibrium, if not handled with care and alacrity.

Almost invariably you will have a clash e.g. between the methodical do-everything-by-the-book character and the spontaneous speedster who delivers in an ad hoc, undeniably effective (if not very accountable) way.

You need them both, but they loathe each other. You can appreciate each person’s perspective, but somehow it’s got to work, because you value them and know the success of what you’re offering relies on their contributions.

Can they sort it out themselves? Can you trust that adversaries will resolve their own differences professionally?

Some considerations:

1. Decide on what must be done and when, and communicate accordingly

If you’re in a position to call the shots, then you know you’ll have to ride ahead and see where the pitfalls are going to occur. Map out a schedule with a firm destination and timeline but looser, more varied routes for getting there and build in milestones. Make sure everyone is party to this plan, and that you’re there to help steer around the obstacles.

2. Set up ‘professional behaviour’ principles

Request that everyone (including yourself) behave professionally. Describe what this means and what it means you do not do. All must agree. Make your own rules e.g. three Cs: civility, consideration and a constructive attitude.  Discuss awareness of how one talks, and also how people write (in emails and texts). Modulating one’s tone of voice is vital in the workplace. Abrasiveness, curt rejoinders, irritability and condescension are some of the more frequent cardinal sins; but so too are moaning, passive-aggression (e.g. rolling one’s eyes), neediness and phony sincerity. In the heat of the moment, we are all tempted to let rip, but this too often jeopardises future interests. So, professional behaviour is key to reducing conflict.

3. Temporarily separate the warring individuals

Sit down, one at a time, with each of the antagonists, and talk through what they believe is causing the impasse.  Encourage them to speak freely and in confidence, so that you can discover what bugs them most.  It could be Laid-back Lenny’s feeling of being micro-managed by Pedantic Penny, or Penny hating the way Lenny leaves everything to the last minute (causing her to nearly blow a fuse). Or Sebastian Snip is constantly finding fault with Casual Cath. Keep drilling down to whatever lies behind these conflicts, and proactively examine what could be done to assist the individuals into a happier, more fulfilled state of mind.

Request that each leave the other to work on their respective tasks, and to communicate politely and proactively where possible.  Praise them when they do so, and encourage both to develop more understanding of what the other faces.

4. Enlist the supportive peacemakers

Find the human office thermostats and put them to work. Pair the temperamentally opposed with harmonious co-workers who they like, and who encourage them to achieve while calming the office temperature down. Observe what assists different people — some may need quiet and their own space to be effective, others like mobility, and several may thrive in an open-plan setup. Don’t be too rigid about office spaces and workstations.

5. Trading places

When the heat isn’t on, it’s a good idea for colleagues to “trade places” for a day or so, the better to appreciate what team members experience. It’s a great a way of developing awareness of what other people’s work entails.

If there’s a culture of blame and attack, then everyone loses focus on outcomes. Open doors, sit down with everyone and spend time as a group devising practical ways that your office ecosystem can improve for the betterment of everyone.

This article was first published at The Mandarin’s sister-publication Smart Company.

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