Roadmap for navigating workplace conflict

April 5, 2016
3 minute read
Last updated July 29, 2019

By Greg Barnett, PhD

It’s a situation most of us have either witnessed or even experienced directly at one point or another during our professional careers: a co-worker is out-of-sorts over an encounter that a peer or manager has deemed innocuous and, before long, tension mounts between the two as each regard the other as being ‘difficult.’

Conflict in the workplace can create challenges for those caught up in it and innocent bystanders alike. Sometimes people can come across as mean, rude or arrogant and it is only human to interpret these behaviors as purposefully malicious and toxic. Yet the reality is that most people don’t wake up every day on a mission to make life miserable for others, destroy relationships and cause conflict. So how do we prevent these types of encounters from bringing your workforce to its knees?

The key is to remember that all people have unique needs, personality styles, and coping mechanisms, and chances are any “bad” behavior is the result of something dysfunctional rather than purposeful. What’s more, your version of dysfunction and another’s version of dysfunction may not be compatible, so you may not see eye-to-eye on a level far deeper than everyday conversation. You may, for example, tend to cope by being overly nice while they are more inclined to be overly direct.

When encountering a truly difficult coworker, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to try and depersonalize the situation. Do this by looking below the surface and trying to understand what is really driving their behavior. This approach can be facilitated if you have access to behavioral data or even just a general understanding of what typically makes this person tick. What if, for example, they are an incredibly detail-oriented person with a need for structure who has recently been placed on a team with someone who is more fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants with little regard for processes and deadlines? You can see how this dynamic could spill into their everyday work life and result in some negative office mojo. At PI, we actually have signs outside of each office door with individual PI patterns on display for all to see, offering clear guidelines on how best to interact with each of us. It’s a roadmap of sorts, guiding us along the way to more constructive and meaningful interactions with each other.

Conflict can be a source of inspiration and spur collaboration in the workplace, but only if it is managed in a positive, constructive manner. The more we understand why a person acts the way they do – their preferences as well as their motivational drivers – the more we’re be able to find common ground, uncover effective methods of engagement or, at the very least, avoid allowing a conflicting style hurt us on a personal level.

Working with others will inevitably include a difference in opinion. How you handle these situations will determine if the outcome is a success or stalemate. Taking the time to think about your own and your teammates’ motivating needs will help you to anticipate and objectively understand both their reactions and responses to your actions. It will also allow you to adjust your approach which will develop trust as you build productive working relationships.

Read our blog post The importance of defining the rules of engagement to learn more about being an open, honest, and frequent communicator and hopefully lowering miscommunication, misunderstandings and tension with difficult colleagues.