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Managing Unhealthy Conflicts at Work

Admit it. We all have someone in our work life that can grate on our nerves—sometimes a lot. It may be your boss, your subordinate, or a peer. It might be an on-going annoyance or just at particular times.

While, ideally, we’d like to change the situation, the reality is that any time we work with a group of people, there are bound to be some who we don’t get along with or who annoy us. Before you quit your job or become miserable because of this person, see if there are other solutions.

So, what can you do? These are some techniques that I have coached clients to use, which have proved to be successful:

Observe the conflicts.
Are they frequently around a similar subject? Are they usually by email or phone? The more specifically you can pinpoint the details, the easier it is to resolve. If it is around a specific issue, such as resource allocation, is there an objective way you can resolve the issue? If it is usually by email, put a ban on email for a period of time. I assigned two clients who weren’t getting along to not use email with each other for two weeks; they had to only speak by phone (they were located in different places). It made a big positive difference in their relationship.

Figure out what drives this person.
One client discovered that her difficult boss was a lot less difficult when she stroked her ego. Another client realized that a key was finding something in common with his boss. He discovered they both enjoyed learning about wine. Once they started talking about that, they started being able to get along better with other issues. Talk about it!

This works well with peers. I’ve had people set up “standards of behaviors” on which they both need to agree. Examples can be as straight-forward as “say ‘hello’ in the morning” to the more complex such as “When negative feelings arise, ask questions to understand what happened. Don’t let them fester.” I have also facilitated sessions in which people brainstorm the “actual reality” of their relationship (example: lack of trust) and the “ideal reality” of their relationship (example: respect for each other) , then come up with action plans to move toward the “ideal”, such as “See the benefits of the other’s style.” and “Seek to understand intent versus impact.”

Find the positive in the other person.
An article in the Harvard Business Review (December 2007) focuses on improving relationships at work. Interesting enough, it is based on the research done by a marriage counselor. One of his main points is that to make a relationship work well, you need to focus on what is right with the other person.

The key is to understand that conflict, such as a divergence of opinions, can be healthy. It becomes unhealthy when it is personal and is taking up too much time and energy. That’s when addressing conflict is critical to your business success.

By Kerrie Halmi of WomenCo.