Clashing With Coworkers? (Hear This: Most People Do...)

Jane Perdue

It’s the weekly department staff meeting, and your boss just recognized a colleague for her innovative idea to improve customer service. Her public praise brought a round of applause from your colleagues.


You can’t applaud because you feel like you’ve just been hit by lightning—that idea was yours!


You shared it with her over a coffee-between-friends yesterday. Now here she is, taking your idea, passing it off as her own, and receiving kudos from the-hard-to-impress boss. Credit that should have been yours.


Truth is, workplace conflict is a fact of life.


The University of Wisconsin Office of Human Resources defines conflict as “a disagreement through which the parties involved perceive a threat to their needs, interests, or concerns.” Dr. Tony Fiore, a psychologist and author of Anger Management for the 21st Century, notes “the effects of conflict in the workplace are widespread and costly. Its prevalence, as indicated by three serious studies, shows that 24-60% of management time and energy is spent dealing with anger.”


Workplace conflict is a fact of life, just like office politics. Fresh Tracks, a UK-based team development company, observes, “Conflict arises from differences, and when individuals come together in teams, their differences in terms of power, values, and attitudes contribute to the creation of conflict.”


When faced with conflict at work, negative reactions range from rage to withdrawal to getting even. None of which are an effective way to resolve the conflict.


Mary Parker Follett, a pioneer in the field of organizational behavior, offers a better way, “There are three ways of dealing with difference: domination, compromise, and integration. By domination only one side gets what it wants; by compromise neither side gets what it wants; by integration we find a way by which both sides may get what they wish.”



Seek first to understand. Is that idea-poaching colleague jealous of you? Does she feel intimidated by your constant stream of fresh ideas? Let individuals voice their opinion, offer their perspective, explain their angle. You don’t have to agree with what they’re saying, but understanding their point of view can help you identify issues that sparked the incident.


Explore your unconscious biases. Many of us get so caught up in our sense of rightness that we don’t fully listen to what people are saying. Are you really hearing facts, or are you reacting to your perceptions and/or stereotypes? Consider these humorous yet insightful words from Robert McCloskey, an American author: “I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”


Practice healthy debate. Take stock of what you’ve learned by asking clarifying questions and actively listening, then determine a course of action appropriate to the situation. Positive conflict is a helpful—and necessary—tool for business and personal growth. As Jim Collins writes in Good to Great, “all the good-to-great companies had a penchant for intense dialogue. Phrases like ‘loud debate’, ‘heated discussions,’ and ‘healthy conflict’ peppered the articles and transcripts from all companies.” Don’t let a fear of not being liked prompt you to be a doormat.


Maintain the connection. Relationships are the new currency of the business world, so be thoughtful about managing your thoughts, feelings, and physical responses when handling conflict. You never know whether or not the person you tick off today could be your boss tomorrow. According to the Relationships Foundation, a consultancy think tank, “getting relationships right is the most important agenda in…business, communities, and in our personal lives.”


Keep the future open. Be willing to admit when you were wrong. Be willing to forgive. Keep these words from Dutch botanist Paul Boese in mind: “Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.”


Image credit:  Small Biz Trends