How to Prevent Conflict in the Workplace
No matter what you do for a living or how many people you work with, there will always be work related conflict. We bring into this space, our egos, our emotions, our needs and desires and we sometimes confuse it with other personal experiences, such as our family dynamic. I used to have a male manager who would speak comfortably to female colleagues; give them instructions, have lunch with them, discuss work issues and resolve conflict. But with men, he found it hard to behave in an assertive manner. Some of the female colleagues thought he favoured the men, and vice versa! It caused tensions to rise in certain scenarios.
Several years later, I met him for coffee and mentioned my observation to him. He laughed and said he said I was right. He had daddy issues.
There are several conflict resolution strategies that you could put in place to manage and resolve conflict in the workplace, however, the most important personal tool to implement is your perception and understanding of what the workplace is and what it isn’t. Once you can do this, many of your conflicts will fade away into insignificance. It’s not easy, but it’s a life changing discovery that will help you prioritise what is important to you and how to save valuable energy by not getting worked up about things and people you can’t change.
Firstly, your work colleagues are not your family. There is a tendency for companies to attempt to replicate the friendly, loving feelings associated with the sense of belonging we may feel when we are surrounded by the people we love. The intention is to foster support and guidance and to encourage other ideals that enable us to flourish. The flip side is that not all family dynamics are healthy. Even without any open declaration from management, we can transfer and project our own ways of behaving within the very first social groups we belonged to (our family) into our workplace.
You may not be aware of this yet, but you might find yourself becoming more submissive or dominant when faced with men or women in power. You may feel and act more protective around certain individuals or you might engage more with male work colleagues than women or indeed, other genders. These subconscious behaviours and preferences may have arisen out of your upbringing. It’s not wrong or right, it’s just how it is for you based on your experience. These responses are emotional. They’re not helpful in allowing you to see what is important to you, and they bring you back to the child within you who hasn’t yet healed.
What does this have to do with conflict?
If you replicate your family interactions in the workplace, you may also replicate the same emotions and conflicts you felt as a child when encountered with similar behaviours. You may perceive that your manager gives particular attention to another female colleague, ignoring you. This could bring out your competitive side. There is nothing wrong with healthy competition within the right context but if it’s aimed purely to get the attention of your manager and it makes you overly angry when she succeeds, there is something that you are misperceiving about the workplace. Perhaps you feel too scared to say no to your boss and you are feeling burned out in consequence. If you are unable to put up healthy, professional boundaries to ensure your personal life can thrive, again, something needs to be examined on an emotional level. These kinds of situations can lead to conflict because they intensify emotional responses and stop you from seeing the situation for what it really is. Crucially, these behaviours are destructive. They do not improve your work or your relationships, they just cause you and other people problems.
How do I change my perception of the workplace?
- Firstly, recognise your emotional response. If you find yourself feeling explosively angry, get some distance from the potential conflict. There are some phrases you can use to help respond professionally until you are able to move away physically. Once you have recognised how you feel and reassured yourself that it’s ok to feel that way, choose not to act on it. It may be frustrating that your manager has not recognised your work and it’s understandable that you feel angry at the injustice of it, but be honest with yourself in assessing whether this is an over-reaction and why your manager’s approval is important to you.
- Take a step back and look at your patterns of emotional response. What triggers you in the workplace? Do you chew on your emotions for days, going over and over what happened to understand it ? Are you left feeling angry or sad about a work scenario without understanding why? Note it down and try and make parallels with other areas of your life. This is powerful work and it’s the start of the healing process.
- Understand that other people have a different perspective to you, and that’s based on their own past or present experiences. The woman you are competing with may not understand why you are behaving this way as all she wants to do is please the manager. Your manager might be confused about your response as there is nothing to compete over and he is unaware of his own actions.
- Is work your only focus? Work could be your passion but it’s also important to balance that with fulfilment outside of work. If you can do that by ensuring you have a healthy personal life and high self-esteem, problems at work can be put into perspective. When you see the bigger picture and understand which of your life goals you want to fulfil, you will know where to direct your precious time and energy.
- Accept that you can’t change people but you can manage your response to them. That sounds easier said than done but it’s the best piece of advice you will receive about any social interaction. Again, it will help you recognise, which battles are worth fighting. If you know you are dealing with a narcissist, learn how to manage their behaviour. If you know you feel irritated during Monday meetings at 4pm, don’t attend them. Focus on being the best version of yourself and your stress levels will balance out.
- Look for a new job. You have a choice to stay or leave, in any employment situation. If you feel that the workplace you are in is toxic to the point that it is damaging your mental well-being, then start planning your exit strategy. If you have reviewed your life goals and you realise that to fulfil one of them, you need to stay in the same job, recognise that for now, this job serves a purpose and when it is done, you will find another one. In the meantime, keep that goal firmly in your mind and make sure it becomes your priority. YOU and your well-being are your priority, not your employer’s balance sheet !
Finally, this takes time and practice. It’s not easy and it won’t happen overnight but if you make a start today, your relationships with everyone will improve.
As always, let me know your thoughts and feel free to leave a comment!