Sometimes even if it is completely justified, it is best not to cross someone, it is simply not worth the conflict it creates. This is the case, when my neighbours the Fuckyas extend their afternoon sport watching parties into the wee hours of the morning. No, Fuckya is not their real name, it’s just a clever way to elude the mail marshal and happens to be what the boys next door shout rather loudly when their team scores. The fun times go on till about 2:30am, long after the sporting event is over and well past the Aznavoorian 9 pm bedtime. As is often the case with sports fans, the Fuckyas practice continual and excessive drinking when they watch sport on television, beginning in the early afternoon and extending into the late afternoon and evening, into night and then on to the morning. It doesn’t end till the last Fuckya passes out.
I have confirmed the grog consumption through spot inspections of the Fuckya yellow recycle bin; however, this kind of investigation is hardly necessary when a rather overt clue, in this case a ‘shrine to grog’, is clearly visible through the front window of the house. It is the shrine, that keeps us from complaining about the noise. Twelve bottles of hard alcohol, artfully arranged on a side table, sitting in front of a pool table, and above that proudly displayed on the wall is the Australian flag. It’s a beautiful thing; really, it brings a lump to my throat and makes me absolutely certain that messing with an Australian with such conviction and overt passion would not be wise. Who wants to get into a neighbour to neighbour dispute about something so visceral?
Most of us prefer to live a life without conflict whether that be with our neighbour, our partner, our family, friends or co-workers. In fact when it comes to our co – workers, after financial considerations, Australians value relationships with co-workers far above other aspects of our work life. It is no wonder, conflict with co- workers is not only unpleasant, it is also stressful, highly unproductive and it takes a toll on workplace effectiveness and productivity.
Unfortunately, the recipe for workplace conflict is a simple one: throw in a group of people, a couple of different ideas and human nature and abracadabra you have conflict. With the added ingredients of spending lots of time together in a confined space, the process gets accelerated.
Workplace conflict can partly be attributed to changes in where we work and the historical evolution of the workplace. This makes sense, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries people worked in fields and didn’t have much say in the classical master servant type relationships. Now with globalization, technological change and higher employee participation, there are different expectations in how we can participate in company decision making.
With the emergence of Gen Y in the workforce, there is not even the old taboo of keeping your mouth shut until you knew what you were talking about. We enjoy the liberty of questioning authority in contemporary culture and unless you happen to be an Australian journalist with a loose jaw visitingThailand, we work encourage people to express their beliefs. The flip side is that when everyone has a say, there’s bound to be differing opinions.
The causes for conflict in the workplace vary, but most believe workplace conflict boils down to two distinct types: the first occurs when ideas or approaches differ and the second results from personality clashes. As designers and architects who have gone through an education process that teaches us to collaborate and vehemently defend our ideas, we know that the first type is not always negative.
Differing opinions often become a catalyst for new ideas or directions that improve work process and outcomes and initiate positive changes. Most industries these days look for this type of interaction and blending of opposing thought to drive greater creativity and innovation. The workplaces we design will often deliberately create spaces where this type of interaction can occur. Unfortunately, when it comes to conflict that is the result of a personality clash, there is rarely anything positive that results.
Differences of opinions can come from a place deep within each of us, the source might be the result of cultural differences, vanity, jealousy, simple misunderstanding, or even childhood preconceptions. It is not a big surprise that we all have different styles when it comes to communicating and thinking and not all of those styles work well together.
Regardless of the source, workplace conflict can lead to moral problems and wasted time; team members will be forced to take sides in a dispute, reducing team effectiveness. The most dangerous part is that a lot of disharmony can sabotage the team’s performance over time and that will impact business results. It is for this reason that many companies spend lots of time and money using tools like the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument to measure their employees thinking styles in an effort to better pair like minded communicators and thinkers.
Others believe personality style is the key and believe it is important to identify the different styles in your workplace to better organise teams. As if there weren’t enough ways to catagorise people: man, woman, gay, straight, Jewish, Cathloic, sporty, nerdy we can now sort ourselves by personality types. You can perform this exercise at your next team or cell meeting for fun. The idea here is to recognise and identify the personality types and behavioural preferences in your team and understand one another’s comfort zones. This will enable us to use different people in different situations, where one style is preferable to another. For example we might choose to use a shark for a project with an impossible deadline. The personality styles are as follows:
> Turtle – Generally avoids conflict, when they recognise one exists they withdraw or suppress and relinquish their personal goals. They believe it is hopeless to try to resolve conflicts
> Sharks – Compete, they try to overpower their opponents and force them to accept their solution to the conflict. They achieve their goals at all cost and have little concern for the needs of others.
> Teddy bears – Accommodate, they want to appease all by putting others needs ahead of their own. For them the relationship is more important than the goal.
> Fox – Compromises, they expect each party to give up something and are willing to sacrifice part of their goals and relationships to find agreement.
> Owl – Cooperates, they search for mutually satisfying outcomes and view conflict as a problem to be solved, they seek solutions that achieve their goals and the goals of the other person.
None of us wakes up in the morning with the intention of coming to work to get into a fight, most of us simply want to get on with it. So what do we do when there is a conflict? First off determine whether the conflict is due to differing opinions or a personality clash. You can do this by asking yourself whether the person you are having a conflict with annoys you all the time or only when there is a work related issue raised? If it happens around work related issues you can ask yourself if your anger is unreasonable or out of proportion, would you feel as mad if someone else in the office had a similar viewpoint? Finally, do you respect the other person in any way?
When the conflict is over ideas, experts advise we stick to the issues and appreciate that others have different opinions. You need to ask yourself if the issue is really that important to you or whether you just don’t like the other person. While it can be a challenge, you should avoid judgement and try hard to listen and understand their viewpoint. When approaching a conflict with the aim of solving the problem rather than trying to win the argument the outcomes will most likely be better for you and the company.
There is always the option to get others to mediate. However, be careful of putting company leaders in the position of becoming a ‘dictator by default’ which can cause other problems. Mainly the leader being disappointed and blaming those in power for their indecisiveness and the others resenting the leader for being a dictator.
Personality clashes are more complicated and those conflicts will most likely continue unless attitudes and behavours change. The suggestions are to accept that people are different and acknowledge the amount of time and energy wasted in not liking someone, consider all of the more productive things you could do. I know the next suggestion will make work no fun for some of you, but they advise we should not gossip or complain about the person you are having a conflict with. Finally try to be reasonable or at least neutral to the other person.
If none of this works you could do what a guy I worked with did, please note that just because I am telling you this story does not mean I condone the behaviour. Naturally, to protect their privacy and make them more Australian, I have changed their names to Davo and Lessa. Davo and Lessa were having a conflict that was so inconsequental that now years later I can’t even recall what it was about. It was a repeating pattern, but this time something happened and Davo reached his breaking point, he went a bit postal – not entirely because he didn’t have a gun. He pulled his phone out of the wall and chucked at Lessa’s head. I must confess that many of us were disappointed that his mark was off and the phone only managed to dent the wall and not shut up Lessa. Everyone agreed she was annoying,with her incessant talk talk talking and complaining, it was as if we were working with one of those homeless bag ladies with a mental disorder.
That being said, he should not have thrown the phone, while being eventful and the fuel for entertaining stories for years to come, this action did little to resolve the conflict. It would come as no surprise that shortly thereafter neither Davo or Lessa had a job. So kids don’t try that at work, keep the phones in the wall. If you have conflict with a co – worker don’t let it fester, have a calm conversation with the person whom you’re clashing with, don’t blame or belittle them and if none of that works get your employer involved or call one of the agencies like WorkCover Advisory Service, the ACTU workers line, or Relationships Australia.
Finally, I want to let you know we have resolved our conflict with the neighbours. This was the result of two events. First, one of the Fuckyas managed to get a girlfriend and women are simply too smart to put up with that kind of behaviour in men older than 22. The second was my husband got annoyed enough to go knock on the door at 2 am, I am not certain if it was his presence or the fact that he was in his underpants that alerted the Fuckyas to the seriousness of the situation. It doesn’t matter, they have learned to simmer down.
Coburn, Clare and Jensen, Mike; Conflict in the Workplace: is Mediation an Appropriate Response? white paper
Dowling, Julianne; The Behaviour Behind the Bullying The Sydney Morning Herald, October 18-19 2008
Firsch, Bob and Monnier, Ron: When Teams Fall Out Harvard Business Review, December – January 1909
Gratton, Lynda and Erickson, Tamara; Why some teams just work The Weekend Financial Review January 19 -20, 2008
Grubacevic, Vesna; Putting a stop to workplace conflict Website – My business resource centre, October 25, 2008
Vine, Melissa and Dasey, Daniel; War at the Water Cooler – Learn to Diffuse Office Spats The Sydney Morning Herald, October 25-26 2008
Workplace Conflict – website The Australian Psychological Society