Ever felt bullied in the workplace? Or, experienced a conflict which has seriously affected the way you feel about going to work? You’re not alone. Workplace conflict is, to a degree, inevitable when you get different personalities working together day in day out. The question is: what should you do when it happens?
Recently, a colleague’s behaviour towards me started to seriously impact me on many levels. As teachers of equal status, working in a team teaching environment, this quickly became a very real problem. Considering myself a professional and a person that has effectively worked closely with others for many years, I recognised that this wasn’t just a case of ‘not getting along’, this was a conflict.
It was little things at first, like when other staff entered the room she would enthusiastically greet them and ask how they were, whereas I would get a grunt with no eye contact. This progressed into everything I said at staff meetings or in routine communication being met with opposition and snide remarks – or totally ignored.
According to Workplace Info, an Australian organisation specialising in News and information for Human Resources and Industrial Relations Professionals, the key warning signs of workplace conflict are;
· people aren’t performing
· people are disengaging
· people are leaving
· increased sick leave
· rule breaking
· lack of cooperation and respect
The warning signs can show up as causes or effects. For example: if people aren’t working cooperatively, as a cause of conflict this can be when a co-worker doesn’t keep us in the loop, share information or treat us as a member of the team. The effect of this conflict can cause all manner of day to day organisational problems as well as anger, frustration and resentment. Given good communication is what organisations rely on to thrive and succeed; this kind of conflict will have serious consequences.
My initial response to the realisation that what I was dealing with was a genuine workplace conflict, was to focus on the students, my work and the other wonderful colleagues I work with. However, eventually the conflict started to creep into my life after hours; where I would go home and stew over the day’s events and then lose sleep at night.
As no overt ‘issue’ or ‘event’ had ever occurred between us, and that the hostility towards me was of a passive aggressive kind of nature; I struggled for some reason to confront her or defend myself. I started to feel negative about going to work, repressed, took more sick leave and eventually realised I was unable to do my job effectively if we couldn’t communicate about the problem.
The day came when I decided I needed to offload. Fed up with my career happiness being hijacked by what I now believe to be a person with bullying issues of her own. I took charge.
First I contacted the Head Teacher for a confidential chat. At this point I really just needed to get if off my chest and seek counsel and advice. The head teacher suggested I try to approach future rebukes from a perspective of “isn’t it great we have different ideas, how can we use this for the benefit of all”. She also said it would be helpful to come up with a few ‘catch phrases’ to use in specific situations. She also offered mediation, but I declined as, I didn’t want my co-worker to know that she had ‘got to me’, preferring to try and find resolutions myself.
I researched conflict resolution online and found a plethora of information, but found a great article on the topic in the Sydney Morning Herald by James Adonis. He quotes Vivian Scott a professional mediator and the author of Conflict Resolution at Work for Dummies; who gives five suggestions on what people can do when they’re confronted by conflict at work.
1. “The first thing is to just keep in mind that the other person is not against you,” she says. “They’re just for themselves. If something feels personal, it’s probably not. It’s just the other person trying to achieve something personally.” Whilst conflict isn’t always bad, healthy competition can be excellent for productivity and idea generation. Recognising when a conflict has gone beyond being healthy is the key.
2. “Secondly, try to figure out what it is they value. It might be respect, security, or economy, that kind of thing. If you spend some time trying to discover that information, then it’s easier for you to come up with a solution that could work for both of you.”
3. “Thirdly, deal directly with the other person,” adds Scott. “Often it’s tempting to talk to third parties and that doesn’t solve anything. Building armies, amassing allies, and separating yourself from the other person rarely solves the issue. As much as possible, if you have a problem with someone, go to them.”
4. Scott’s fourth tip. “Control your own emotions and how you’re going to handle the situation. Adhere to a professional code of conduct despite what the other person is doing.”
5. “And lastly, find the learning experience,” she says. “Find the thing that’s going to move you ahead in terms of your professional conduct. Was there something you said or did that made this situation go longer or worse than it should have?”
After quiet consideration on how I could deal with this conflict I realised that, fundamentally, the conflict could mostly be attributed to a personality conflict. As far as teaching styles, personality and educational ethos went – we were stratospheres apart. I didn’t see eye to eye with her on most things, plus, importantly, I didn’t regard her as an effective teacher for the cohort of students we worked with.
This changed everything about how I moved forward. Taking the time to ‘unpack’ the situation and seek counsel from a trusted person in charge, and then using that to reflect on what exactly was happening; enabled me to see the conflict for what it was. I realised I had silently contributed to this conflict and it had caused me to give it and her an inordinate amount of focus.
The result was that I no longer felt immobilised by the conflict. Her hostility towards me continued, but it no longer ate me up. I even started to feel some empathy for her, realising that she actually didn’t like teaching much, and might be happier if she could earn a living from her art. Eventually, she gave up on me, and whilst it is unlikely we will ever be close, the animosity is gone, and we can communicate when needed in a professional manner.
The effect a workplace conflict can have on a person’s life, should not be underestimated. Recognising the warning signs is the first step, then importantly, taking action rather than thinking the problem will just resolve itself and go away.
Deciding to take charge, both attitudinally and in action is not only necessary it is crucial. Most importantly, learning how to handle workplace conflict can help you grow as a person, and enable you to progress professionally.