Difficult Relationships at Work – Dealing with Workplace Conflict

Difficult Relationships At Work

Workplace Conflict, Bullies, and What To Do

By Charlotte Burton

Difficult Relationships at Work – How to Influence the Uncooperative

Summary: Difficult relationships and difficult people in the workplace are challenging and frustrating. Learn some techniques to use when dealing with these difficult workplace relationships and conflict situations.

We rely on and spend more time with our colleagues than with most other people in our lives: yet we frequently experience conflict at work. This is a problem that is beginning to be recognised, but it is still not being dealt with either effectively or sufficiently. Conflict is such a broad term for what can be experienced, ranging from office gossip to outright bullying. In nearly every single office there are always going to be personality clashes at some point, and most of the time they will be fairly easily sorted out. However, sometimes they aren’t and there is often no other option than to resign. The real problem underlying this situation is that people really don’t have the skills to deal with these kinds of situations. They frequently accept the problem when it is happening and then get really upset afterwards.

The Five Strategies for Dealing with Conflict

1. Avoidance

This is the most frequently used strategy along with accommodation. Here conflict is avoided and when it does appear the person using this strategy refuses to engage in the situation.

Example: Someone making a sly comment and the person it was aimed at simply walking away.

While this obviously is not a good way of dealing with conflict the majority of the time as it tends not to help, it is worth being considered as a strategy for when the conflict is just not worth the effort of being addressed.

2. Accommodation

Here you take the conflict and submit.

Example: Listening to unhelpful criticism and believing it.

Again, very frequently used especially where there is low confidence and self-esteem. This is another not very successful method of dealing with conflict, but it will do if you know that there is a solution coming soon.

3. Compete

This one means that you play the person at his or her own game and work hard to get your own way in the conflict.

Example: Someone starts spreading rumours about you, so you do the same in return in an attempt to discredit the power of the other person’s word.

This can be very useful when the conflict is mild and you are passionate about your stance, but can lead to a vicious circle as the conflict escalates. Be very sure you want to use this strategy as lowering yourself to someone else’s level rarely shows you in the best light.

4. Compromise

A much more useful tactic to use: here you don’t give in to the conflict, but work out a solution somewhere between the two sides.

Example: Someone delegates a huge amount of work to your already over-filled plate, you respond by taking on some of it, and then recommending that this person parcel out the rest to other people.

This is the strategy of choice for most untrained managers as this is how we frequently deal with children in real life – and so it is a behaviour we all know about. This can of course lead to the obvious downfall of the actual solution leaving none of the sides happy. This is best to use when the goal is to get past the issue and move on – with the issue having relatively little significance.

5. Collaborate

The most useful tactic, particularly with extremes of conflict such as bullying. The aim here is to focus on working together to arrive at a solution, where both sides have ownership of and commitment to the solution.

Example 1:

You and someone else are at completely opposed viewpoints over a project. You sit down with them and work out why they believe in their point of view, and explain your own. Clever and lateral thinking can provide a solution, which answers both sides, but is not a compromise.

Example 2:

Someone is bullying you at work. You talk to this person using the strategies below and collaborate on modifying their behaviour.

Use this strategy when the goal is to meet as many of the current needs as is possible. The most difficult strategy if confidence is low as it involves actually naming the issue to the conflict-creator, which can cause huge anxiety and fear.

To collaborate successfully on an issue such as bullying or continuing conflict you need to follow a few basic guidelines.

– You must recognise that part of the problem is your own fault: you allowed it to happen and did not try to address it to begin with. You can use this aloud and actively take part of the responsibility, as this will put the onus onto the other person to take the other part of the responsibility.

– Remember that we frequently don’t like in others what we don’t want to see in ourselves, but find occasionally anyway. Be very sure that you have not committed the same conflict and that you do not in the future.

– Manage yourself during the resolution attempt – learn calming strategies if you are hot-tempered, or confidence boosters if you are shy. Try not to be emotional, as emotion will only make things escalate.

– Maintain eye contact and use your body language to convey your belief in what you are saying. Don’t fiddle with something nervously, don’t cross your arms protectively, and don’t put yourself on a lower level than the other person (such as sitting on a lower chair).

– Don’t believe that the best defence is a good offence – that is part of the Competing strategy.

– Work the issue, not the person: this means addressing the behaviour rather than the entire existence of that person. There is a different level of ownership for behaviours, and people will take less offence if you criticise their behaviour than if you criticise them personally. Never lay blame, as this will only fan the fires.

– If you are not getting anywhere, ask for further information from the other person about the reasons for their behaviour, but don’t ask the questions with ‘why’ at the beginning – if you do this will actively put the other person under the spotlight and they will get defensive.

Remember above all, that people who enjoy creating conflict are ultimately power-seekers who enjoy controlling others. Frequently this is because either they have suffered in a similar way before or feel that they have very little control over their own lives and does anything they can to feel in control. A little compassion will take you a long way both in resolving the situation and in putting it behind you when it is resolved.

A Final Word on Bullying

Dr Gary Namie, co-founder and president of the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute, conducted an online survey of 1,000 people who claimed to have been bullied at work, finding that 37% were eventually fired, and 33% quit their jobs. In a reversal of the typical childhood bullying scenario, in which unpopular and apparently weak kids are picked on most, adult victims in the workplace tend to be very capable and charismatic people. The bully sees them as a threat, and determines to get them out of the picture. Most workplace bullies are thought to be women — 58% according to those Namie surveyed — and so are their targets — 80% of those surveyed. The estimated figure is that half the adult population will experience severe conflict at work at least once in their working life. That is a scary statistic – and the majority of people don’t expect conflict and don’t know how to deal with it when it intrudes.

Bullying conjures up images of schools and young children, but it is growing trend in the workplace, which is rarely tackled openly even if you are lucky enough to have policies to deal with this issue. There are legal options to take should the strategies above not resolve the conflict. Don’t ever just put up with bullying, seek help and advice.

To learn more about bullying and what you can do about it, I recommend visiting www.bullyonline.org – it has a lot of good information and further resources.

Charlotte Burton is a Licensed Career Coach & Psychometric Assessor. For more information and to sign up for the ezine, view the website at http://www.lifeisvital.com or email charlotte@lifeisvital.com to request your complimentary consultation.

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