Early in her career, newly hired at a top consulting firm with a freshly minted PhD under her belt, Beatrix Dart was introduced to a client who promptly asked her to bring coffee for the entire group.
“I didn’t know how to react. While I did go and get coffee for everybody, it didn’t feel right. As I came back I casually said, ‘Did I give you my business card?’ and handed it to him,” says Dr. Dart, now professor of strategy and executive director of the Initiative for Women in Business at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. “Luckily it had my Dr. title on it and that changed the entire conversation and his behaviour toward me.”
In this instance, Dr. Dart relied on humour to make her point and de-escalated a workplace conflict without coming across as overly aggressive. In other cases, directness works much more efficiently, she says, recalling a time several years later when another client insisted on grabbing lunch at notorious eatery Hooters together.
Dr. Dart refused outright.
“I said matter-of-factly, ‘I’m sorry, I’m not going there.’ So he said ‘Ok, we can go somewhere else,’” says Dr. Dart. “There are times when you simply owe it to yourself to be firm and say no, and that includes anything that goes into a clear sexual context or makes you uncomfortable.”
With more people returning to the office, the potential for increased workplace conflict has reared its ugly head. These conflicts may range from personality clashes and power struggles to perceived or actual issues surrounding hierarchy, says Susannah Margison, a Toronto-based lawyer, coach, conflict strategist and CEO of Margisons.
“People are generally more irritated than they have been in the past after two years of a global pandemic, which means that minor issues which might previously have been permitted to simmer are now escalating,” says Ms. Margison.
The career consequences of poor response to conflict (whether avoidant or aggressive) can be significant, she adds.
“Beyond the typical disciplinary measures one might expect to see in a professional environment, being seen as ‘difficult to work with’ by colleagues and management can mean losing out on career progression opportunities like promotions, collaborations and mentorship,” she says.
Despite progress towards gender equality, some women are still having to navigate issues around inequality in resource and task allocation, recognition for work completed and eligibility for promotion. And women worry that speaking out forcefully might result in them being labelled and stereotyped.
“The reality is that women assume more career risk when being assertive than their male counterparts,” says Ms. Margison.
While there are times when it may be more appropriate to avoid a conflict or to be forceful, problems arise when people react by allowing their emotions to take over, rather than choosing a deliberate approach that works towards their best interests, she says.
Ms. Margison says she wasn’t always a pro at managing conflict effectively, but through time and experience she has found an effective approach.
“As I tell the young lawyers I now mentor, you can be kind while being firm, and you can be firm while being kind,” she says.
Navigating conflict in the workplace
Beatrix Dart stresses the importance of having allies you can trust to have your back in contentious situations.
“Approach them ahead of time and ask them to support you in meetings,” she says. “Simply say, ‘I need to bring up this topic and it would be fantastic if you could back me up.’”
And while taking a deep breath in the midst of conflict may sound trivial, it does make a difference in preventing the emotional side of your brain from taking over the decision-making side, Dr. Dart says.
“Excuse yourself to go to the washroom, take a drink of water and give yourself a break to collect yourself and refocus on the issue at hand.”
Dr. Dart also recommends that women build their own “personal advisory board” comprised of a diverse group of mentors. These trusted allies can help provide guidance and advice when dealing with difficult situations.
“This board should include someone who knows you well, [someone] who knows your industry quite well and can help you navigate unwritten rules and politics behind closed doors, and another who can give you perspective or open doors to a different environment,” she says.
Dr. Dart says that tapping into this group on a regular basis can be especially valuable if workplace conflicts have escalated to the point where you think you need to change your job or career.
“It can help you sit back and reflect on whether you’re making the change for the right reasons,” she says.
Adjust your communication style as needed
What if you suspect that you may be the one causing conflicts in your workplace?
Oksana Shkurska, associate dean and assistant professor of business communication and management at Dalhousie University’s Rowe School of Business, says it’s important to be mindful of how your communication style might be affecting others and to adjust it accordingly to avoid misunderstandings.
Make requests rather than demands and speak of consequences rather than threats when navigating prickly conversations, she suggests.
“Show appreciation of other people’s opinions and use ‘hedging’ words like ‘may,’ ‘could,’ ‘likely,’ and ‘perhaps’ as a strategy to soften your message, especially when it’s a negative one,” Dr. Shkurska says.
“Don’t accuse others, but instead use a ‘we’ approach to take collective responsibility when something goes wrong.”
Ms. Margison says that her saving grace and personal “mantra” in any conflict is to remain curious.
“Every perceived disagreement is an opportunity to better understand where the other person is coming from,” she says. “It also serves as an important reminder that we rarely, if ever, have all the answers when we’re in a disagreement, and that jumping to conclusions sometimes results in landing in mud.”
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