Snow White Doesn't Live Here Anymore

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4 Ways to Handle Arguments at Work: Advice for the Boss

How does a true leader best handle conflict at work?

Is "conflict resolution" an oxymoron? How does a true leader best handle conflict at work?

The world tells us that people in positions of leadership must facilitate "conflict resolution" within their communities; this leads to the kinds of successes we've seen throughout the world (insert bitter laughter here).

If you have two staff members who are belittling, sniping, or undermining each other, fraying the social fabric at work so entirely that the work environment is torn to shreds, you can't exactly send them to the corner for a nap or give them a time-out. That's called "firing" somebody and it usually involves lawyers.

So what's a leader to do?

A leader is supposed to make people who would rather tear out one another's throats with their fangs "make nice." Instead of leaving their opponents stripped bare of dignity, stature, influence, and their favorite ID lanyards, they're supposed to leave with a smile, or perhaps, a group hug.

While its true that even God himself could not get Cain and Abel to shake hands and just get over it, but there are some ways to make it seem as if you're making progress.

1. Try not to invite Mr. Cain and Ms. Abel into your office to discuss their grievances. Sure, it sounds like the adult and responsible thing to do. Avoid it at all costs. Why on earth would you let them into your space with all their anger fumes? They're just going to plop themselves down and start bickering, like an old married couple. You didn't get your nice, quiet office to act as a family therapist (unless, of course, you ARE a family therapist, in which case we could all use some pointers here).

Let them take it outside. Have them work it out through a spirited game of dodgeball, perhaps. Some experts of course have decided that the traditional method of dueling is most appropriate in these cases. Have each antagonist choose his or her own weapon. Would they, for example, like to hurl Post-Its at each other? Would they like to exchange pithy diatribes (emphasis on the "th" so that absolutely no possibility of a substitution of an "s" could work)? Should they each be given a flip chart, colored markers, and two minutes to present the five most persuasive points of their position?

For those at an age putting them close to retirement or the "early bird special," it should be noted that spitballs are no longer considered fair play (perhaps because of the clear gender bias they represent). If Mr. Cain can use spitballs, then Ms. Abel is allowed to make fun of his clothes. 

2. Don't fake conviviality. Respect their hatred for each other. Treat them the way you would treat a zombie and a werewolf if they entered your office: with respect for the damage they could both do, but for the knowledge that it is unlikely they would become friends, also with the additional understanding that if they do become friends, you might become lunch. Let's face it, sometimes its good for people not to like each other. It keeps their energy focused. At least the boundaries are clear. Haven't we been told by everybody from Freud to Dr. Drew that boundaries are good? That's why armies wear different uniforms-you have to know who the enemy is. If everyone started wearing white collared shirts, blue blazers, khaki pants - oh, wait! That is what we do...at  least at work.

Let people figure out their own allegiances and friends. It doesn't mean they have to like each other. Your job is just to make sure they can work together. And sometimes, you can't even do that. All you can do is stop them from hitting each other in the hall or leaving inappropriate information about the other on Facebook.  

3. If you must have them come to your office, although you can no longer keep liquor in there—aren't there state laws against this?—you can at least have a candy bowl. Ply them with sugar. Get one of those little espresso machines, ply them with caffeine. Hell, get a George Foreman Grill and ply them with protein. With any luck, they'll be so deliriously wired when they leave your office, they won't remember what they were upset about.

4. Set a specific date in the future to assess how the conflict resolution has worked so far and to seek other solutions if necessary. Make sure that date is set firmly on your calendar for sometime after you leave for vacation.

Gina Barreca, Ph.D., is Professor of English at UConn, and author of It's Not That I'm Bitter: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Visible Panty Lines and Conquered the World.

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