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The Cost of Conflict in the Workplace

Can't we all just get along?

An article by the Conflict Resolutions Center online states that 30-40 percent of supervisors’ and managers’ daily activities are devoted to dealing with conflicts in the workplace. In this day and age of too much to do, and not enough time to do it in, what organization can afford to have their leaders spending more than 1/3 of the day dealing with employees who can’t get along?

In many organizations, the cost of litigation is high, work projects don’t get finished on time due to conflicts, and employees take too many “sick” days because they just don’t want to have to deal with co-workers or bosses they don’t like, are afraid of or cannot work with somehow.

What is going on? Adults have had many life experiences. We may have had siblings who teased us, or with whom we did not get along. We may have been bullied in school. We may have had teachers who picked on us. We may have had parents who were not well equipped to deal with the raising of children. So, haven’t we had a great deal of practice in dealing with those who aren’t “easy” for us by the time we get into the workplace?

The problem is that while we encounter these early life experiences, very few of us are ever taught productive and active ways to deal with the difficult people around us. Look at the school systems: We punish the bully, but we don’t spend much time building up a child’s core self-esteem, or teaching them coping approaches to deal with bullies effectively. We put the picked-on child in a “victim mentality” instead of teaching them how to rise above the conflict.

In too many cases we don’t (as children) have someone to appeal to. We are forced to deal with the difficult behavior alone, and many people internalize it to think “it’s me – I am the problem.” With problem friends, we might have a parent say, “Just deal with it.” Or, “I never liked that kid anyway.” But in too many cases, we don’t get a parent to role play with us, or brainstorm ways to deal with friends who hurt us.

By the time we arrive in the workplace, we’ve had many negative relationship experiences but we haven’t learned many tools to deal with others we find to be difficult. In the workplace, the stakes get very high. Now our livelihood is on the line – many times we can’t afford to rock the boat, so we suffer in silence.

What can we do when we find ourselves in a work situation where we are struggling with others? Quitting is an option, but finding ways to deal is a better option. Once we master the skills of dealing with difficult people, we can transfer these skills to every future situation.

If you find yourself in a difficult situation at work, consider the following:

(1) Look at impact first. What kind of impact does this person have on you? Are they simply annoying or do they prevent you from doing your job? We waste a lot of time ruminating over people who aren’t really doing anything to us; we just don’t like them. Don’t expend energy unless it matters.

(2) If they do impact you, consider your options. Can you take the person for coffee and talk with them? Can you work with them differently? Can you engage someone else to mediate? Is there someone who does get along with them that can coach you?

(3) Become an Interested Observer. Instead of giving in to the emotion and getting upset, can you mentally step outside the situation and view what’s happened with detachment? What can you learn about this person? Why do they do what they do? Why does it bother you so much? Becoming clinical and interested often takes the personal “sting” out of another’s behavior.

(4) Can you “act as if?” Can you pretend for one day that you do get along with this person? Can you make a list of things they do well, or that benefit you? Can you find anything at all positive about them? See if you can change your mental snapshot even for a short period of time. Just as changing a seat in an educational setting makes the learning experience different, changing the lens we use to see others changes our experience of them.

When all else fails, adopt the mantra “This too shall pass.” This job isn’t the be-all and end-all of your life. Something will happen; the person will get relocated, or you will leave, or the person will calm down, or someone else will take their place. Try to keep perspective on it instead of letting it drain your vital energy.

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