Andrea Anders’s public relations career was soaring when she took her next step on the corporate ladder: a senior leadership role for a multinational public relations firm. She was thrilled about the new gig, but one issue tarnished the experience. She was having recurring clashes with one of her team members.
The conflict surfaced in team meetings, one-on-one conversations and e-mail, says Ms. Anders. The team member was “combative, loud, aggressive, impatient with junior staff, dominating and uncensored,” she says.
Looking back at the situation now, Ms. Anders recognizes her own role in the clashes. She says she was put off by the way her team member communicated and didn’t try to understand her different working style.
“My inability to manage her effectively led her to quit,” says Ms. Anders, who now runs her own PR firm. “She tearfully told me that on her last day.”
Successful collaborations and lifelong friendships are the desirable benefits of a great office life, but there’s also the possibility of being faced with a boss or co-worker who can make the workweek a misery with continuing friction.
Whether it’s about competitive tension, personality conflicts or true animosity, disharmony between workers can have an outsized impact on an individual’s enjoyment of a job.
According to a recent survey of 1,800 Canadian employees done by recruitment and career website Monster.ca, one of the top five reasons employees leave a job is because of an unhealthy or undesirable culture. As well, more than a third of parting employees said they were motivated “more by their unhappiness than by the attraction or availability of an outside opportunity.”
As more workplaces move from online back to in-person, interpersonal conflict is likely to rear its ugly head. But what do you do when you can’t stand someone you have to work with for eight or more hours a day?
According to Tiziana Casciaro, professor of organizational behaviour and HR management at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, many of us have likely been confronted with what she terms the “competent jerk.”
“Interactions are unpleasant, their behaviour is dismissive of you and makes you feel incompetent,” Dr. Casciaro says. “They’re not dependent on you because you’re not relevant to what they’re trying to achieve at work.”
The competent jerk may act rudely with one person but not everyone, says Dr. Casciaro, but the constant negative interactions can become an “emotional contagion” within the team.
“This emotional state can spread from person to person,” she explains. “If you are tense, I absorb it. And if others observe you and I in conflict, they can become contaminated.”
Workers affected by this kind of conflict often hope their manager will solve the situation. If they don’t, this can result in people not feeling protected or understood, escalating their stress and isolation in the office.
“Your sense of autonomy is affected,” says Dr. Casciaro. “A problematic peer limits your movement and you may not relate to your teammates. The need for affiliation is very important.”
Amanda Hudson, founder of A Modern Way to Work, a Toronto-based HR consultancy, says that employees faced with discord often want a quick fix, which can mean filing a grievance with human resources.
“At work, people have a lower tolerance for conflict than we do in our personal lives,” she says.
A 20-year veteran of human resources management, Ms. Hudson says she is working to change the negative stereotype of HR as corporate enforcer by developing ways to help offices function better.
In an ideal office environment, she says, employees rarely contact human resources. “Involving a third party always makes the conflict worse,” she notes.
Instead, top-functioning offices equip their managers with conflict resolution skills.
“Our focus is on management training,” says Ms. Hudson. “If you remember that 99.9 per cent of people want to do a good job, then ask yourself, what is getting in the way for that to happen?”
Most people prefer to work with others who have strengths and personalities that are like their own, says Ms. Hudson, “but we need people who are the least like us, to make a stronger team.”
Boost constructive communication
Ms. Anders says that career coaching sessions helped her learn how to be a better manager. As the head of her own public relations firm, she’s a firm believer in making sure her team is inclusive and that the communication lines stay open.
“In high pressure and high-volume industries, listening and ensuring everyone is heard makes all the difference,” she says.
With a client list that includes real estate, technology, fitness and hospitality, Ms. Hudson has created leadership tools to boost constructive communication in a work setting. Her latest resource is the Difficult Conversations card deck, 40 cards geared to encourage deeper consideration before broaching a topic of conflict. Key phrases include “I’d like to hear your perspective on …” and “Stay open-minded.”
Dr. Casciaro recommends taking time to examine the conflict before reacting.
“If you don’t analyze, you will never find out what that person values and what makes you valuable in their eyes,” she says.
She also suggests cultivating a network within the organization, which can be helpful to provide different viewpoints when conflict arises.
As workplaces increasingly move to in-person interaction, take advantage of that face time to go for impromptu coffee chats. Try to get to know that “competent jerk” and figure out what’s behind the conflict, she says.
“Do a diagnosis of the relationship before you give up on it.”
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