Communication and Conflict in the Office

Organizations have diverse teams focused on achieving a multitude of goals often with limited resources. Often, when resources such as staff or equipment are scarce some staff may engage in conflicts at work impacting office productivity. There are several ways to approach business conflicts: avoidance, acceptance or using a litany of anger. Business people learn how to respond to conflict based on good or bad experiences and childhood lessons.

When a person avoids handling conflict at work, it is because she or he may possess a negative perception regarding conflict situations. For example, some people believe there are only winners and losers in conflicts. The concept of a 50/50 chance of losing will make any one steer clear of office conflicts. However, avoiding a work place issue will lead to disdain among peers instead a meaningful approach to resolution.

In addition, accepting that work place strife occurs no matter how you plan your day has both positive and negative implications. For example, if you accept that every day you go to work a conflict will occur, you may become disenchanted about being frustrated on a regular basis. Sometimes the only answer to accepting that your office has work place drama is leaving to find a more harmonious work environment.  One drawback to accepting that only bad things happen at work is the feeling of hopelessness and detachment from the group.

On the other hand some folks may approach work place discord with a negative response mostly because they feel empowered by title or due to a history of leveraging anger to win office battles. When a person uses antagonism as the only response to work place conflicts it results in a detrimental impact to the team’s psyche and health. Next time you feel like reacting in a angry way to a conflict, take a step back to consider if the issue is really something to get upset over or not. Then try to refocus  your energy on how the issue may become a good opportunity for you to practice your problem solving skills.

An additional option I recently learned about from the book “Getting to Yes” by William Ury suggests having a “Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement or a BATNA”. In essence, a “BATNA” is backup plan to achieving your goals. Sometimes using compromise to resolve conflict is an optimum way to move the entire team forward.

There are other ways to approach tense business situations without ire or incurring negative feelings.

7 Tips on how to cope with office conflicts:

  • Take  a pause to determine if the issue is you or something else creating the problem
  • Delay your reaction until a calm and clear resolution created
  • Don’t use email or voice mail as the only way to solve conflicts
  • Think about how your negative response may impact your peers
  • Listen to the other person’s concerns objectively
  • Re-frame your perception that all conflicts are “bad things”
  • Focus on improving your internal locust of control so you can manage your feelings effectively

Tracey Batacan is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Jack Shaw

Your article certainly mirrors my last 8 years of working for the Federal government. Leaders need to resolve conflicts at work, not complacency. You talk about acknowledging “work drama,” acting out negatively (I never did), or working together to solve problems, offering concessions. Still complacency. Petty office squabbles, perhaps.

However, when the leader doesn’t do as you prescribe in your article, acting instead choosing to abuse his or her control. If the leader is part of the problem, then the leader above them needs to be involved, and up the chain until the issue is resolved.

I believe I handled my “negative” environment professionally, but it didn’t do me any good. There were simple fixes, most of which could have been easily initiated by leadership. No one wanted to be a leader in that situation. There were no good solutions I could find short of retiring. I applied for other positions–even developed my latest position so I could co-exist more easily, but my boss was dead set about me not belonging there. I found out later she had wanted to fill the slot with someone else. When the Commissioner called, what could she do. I wish she had said “no.” And I would have gone to another Region where the reception was more honest.

I was the guy from the Central Office who came to the Region. I had no negative attitude (none that showed anyway). I was grilled daily about people I used to work with, but that seemed my only value. I didn’t have the skills needed. Central and Regional operations differ and positions are the same, but more specialized. I did have aptitude. Instead of sustained training and leadership support, I was thrown in to fail. After all, I didn’t belong.

Of course, we can all say it had to be more complicated than that, and it probably was, but after 8 years I figured out what seemed to be at the heart of the matter. I was “persona non grata” from Day One. I received minimal training and was expected to perform tasks (unfamiliar to me with my background) like everyone else with my grade, which came from Central Office. I persisted in trying to “fit in,” but it was obvious I was never going to. I became depressed and hated coming to work, but I never let on.

You might understand why I feel worker complacency isn’t the answer. It’s leadership.

If I sound bitter, it’s true. And psychologically damaged. That shouldn’t happen. I would have been happy doing pretty much anything somewhere else, but that was controlled, too. I was told flat out by my boss that she didn’t want to supervise me, and if I wanted out of there I needed to get her a slot because human resources wasn’t going to fill the one I left. This occurred on more than one occasion, and everyone’s response was “well…let’s talk it over with her.” I had every reason to believe she would say anything to denigrate my character and my work as she always had.

I guess the environment is different than the one you describe. I was in an environment of middle management staffers, a small team, with a supervisor. Even with flexi-time and flexi-place, it was hard to breathe.