The Office Salad
Steps to Resolve Workplace Conflicts
Are members of your
staff like oil and water – not mixing well enough to become a team?
As a manager, you’ve seen the stress involved, and are not immune to
their feelings as well as the pressure from your own boss about
budgets, time constraints and deadlines. Tempers can flare at a
moment’s notice and conflict can have serious consequences.
At the foundation of stress is communication;
more often than not it is due to the lack of communication. When we
encounter a situation that we believe we are not in control of, our
”fight or flight” reaction kicks in. In most situations, the
“flight” is not an option. We react instead of respond. So how do you deal with these potentially
explosive challenges? Let’s look at four scenarios:
Sally, a purchasing manager, is a fast-talker and skims over
details. She has just resolved a crisis that took several hours
(and is exhausted from the effort). Tom, one of her suppliers, is a
slower-paced talker who calls her to confirm the particulars on a
proposal. Sally feels pressured to make up for her lost morning.
Tom, wanting to thoroughly understand what he will be bidding on,
thinks there is ambiguity. Based on their previous interactions,
Sally knows she needs to slow down how fast she talks to lessen
Tom feels she is patronizing him, even when Sally
speaks slowly. He becomes defensive and stubborn, and his voice
tone reflects that. She hears his defensiveness and that fuels her
resolution: Sally should ask Tom if they can postpone the conversation. That
should give Tom knowledge that her impatience will be more prevalent
if they talk now. If Tom needs to get his questions answered
immediately, they need to be aware of each other’s schedules, stress
levels and reactions.
Tom needs to disregard Sally’s tone of voice and
focus on the words she says. He also needs to focus on the most
important questions, even if it means he won’t ask every single
question. Sally needs to realize Tom’s attention to details is part
of his personality, and his frustration will increase if he doesn’t
get his questions answered.
Manager Linda has been putting off this performance discussion with
Jack, her direct report, because she thinks Jack is too agreeable –
he seems to waffle on decisions and won’t justify his actions. She
knows this meeting will take too much time and not enough will be
Jack, too, is dreading this meeting. Linda is
impatient and interrupts or cuts him off before he can fully explain
himself. Then he gets flustered and feels uncomfortable. He wishes
she would tell him what she wants done and how she wants it done.
The more frustrated Linda gets, the faster and
louder she talks. The more stressed Jack gets, the quieter he
gets. Linda perceives Jack as being weak, which causes her to
become more argumentative. Jack translates this into her being
intimidating, and he reacts by withdrawing more.
resolution: Linda and Jack are at opposite ends of the behavioral scale.
Linda’s aggressiveness is heightened by Jack’s submissiveness.
Neither one realizes the effect they are having on each other.
Linda needs to become more aware of her voice
tone – whether it sounds harsh, loud, sarcastic, angry,
condescending, or frustrated. She also can look at Jack ’s body
language; it is telling her that he is uncomfortable. Jack needs to
understand what his body language is saying. As difficult as it may
be, he needs to sit up, look Linda in the eye, and calmly explain
his actions. He is looking for Linda to like him and be his friend
when what he can look for is Linda’s respect.
One particular meeting’s agenda items were crucial to the success of
the current project. Several key decisions have to be made and
implemented quickly. True to form, Jane is laughing and telling
stories with little regard for the time crunch. John’s irritation
is growing and he can’t understand why no one, especially the boss,
is taking control of the situation.
resolution: Jane and John deal with stress in their own way, yet they don’t
realize it. Each expects the other person to act the same
way, instead they are both reacting. Jane’s stories need to
be toned down without alienating her, and John needs to stop taking
the meeting so critically.
When the meeting leader realizes Jane is telling
another animated story, he can say, “Jane that sounds great and we’d
love to hear about it! We need to keep this meeting running on time
… how about if you tell us about it later?” Saying this with a smile
and in a light tone of voice will keep her defenses down, yet give
her the recognition that she needs. When John begins to dig down to
the minutia he feels comfortable with, he needs to realize that’s
his way of dealing with stress. John needs to be given time, outside
the formal meeting, to research alternatives and adjust to the
Alice is “all business” at the office, and expects others to be the
same. The team has stopped asking her to join them for lunch because
her response is always “no.” They consider her standoffish and
aloof because she does not share personal information. Alice keeps
conversations focused on deadlines and projects, and is quick to
return to her desk immediately afterwards. If her knowledge was not
such an integral component of the team’s performance, no one would
interact with her.
Resolution: Alice prefers facts, figures and tasks over interacting with
people. She does not consider herself rude or distant – in fact she
shares her knowledge with all her team members. Alice is not
purposely aloof … she prefers to get close to the team by working
closely in the office environment. If the team approaches her as a
group, she may feel intimidated. One team member should ask Alice to
stay after a meeting and emphasize from a business standpoint the
bottom line results of reaching out in a personal way to others.
Stress the value to her when others can appreciate her talents in a
It’s also important to talk to the team members
and let them know that Alice is not snubbing them … she just prefers
distance. Realizing that Alice will never be as chummy as they are
with each other can mitigate some of the conflict.
Each of these situations can be resolved if those
involved become aware of what their hot buttons are, and the effect
their reaction has on the other person. A leader can easily step in
and work with each employee to see the other person’s strengths and
weaknesses, and how they affect their point of view.
Knowing our behaviors are in direct response to our perceptions
allows us to view the situation more objectively. It takes a
conscious awareness and a lot of deep breaths to respond, and not
react. The rewards make it worth the effort.
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