Avoiding the Clash of the Colleagues

Dealing with office feuds can be tricky politically. Here are a few ways you can defuse a situation - without becoming the office pariah.

by Tara Daynes
Last Updated: 17 May 2013

The scale of workplace conflict is rising – in a recent CIPD survey, 40% of organisations reported spending more time dealing with conflicts in the last 2 years. Sometimes though, it can just be a couple of workmates who have a personality clash and struggle to get along. So we need to deal with that without the rigmarole of formal, external mediation.

Conflict can be destructive – divisive, thereby limiting communication, creating barriers, destroying relationships, and having an impact on the rest of the team. But no matter how much a colleague may act like a child, often it is not as easy as telling them to shake hands, make friends and play nicely. So how do you manage a flaming row?

Getting a neutral third party involved is often the best way to get people to sort out their differences – people are more likely to be on their best behaviour when there’s someone else in the room. But it’s not just a cosy chat; it needs to be an open, honest, controlled and structured discussion between both parties, facilitated by someone else so that it doesn’t descend into shouting and fisticuffs, or sulking.

Start by talking to both parties individually, to find out what the issues are and gain an understanding of each side’s point of view. Set ground rules from the start: stay calm, no shouting, no swearing, no name-calling, no interrupting. They need to be honest with and respectful of each other, and importantly, maintain confidentiality – no water-cooler conversations with their mates afterwards; Fight Club rules apply.

One of the aims is to help the warring parties to identify the root cause of conflict. So do a bit of probing to pin down underlying causes. Often it’s a big misunderstanding or a case of Chinese whispers; someone thought someone else was backstabbing them, undermining them and so on. These suspicions can escalate, so you need to ask the right questions to establish the facts. Conflict is usually personal, so by depersonalising it, both people can be more objective and less emotional.

But what if you’re part of the feud and feel someone is treating you badly? BIFF them! Not literally, but by describing their Behaviour, the Impact, how it makes you Feel, and what you’d like in the Future. A classic example is breakdown in communication: ‘You always email me or leave Post-Its instead of speaking to me, and that makes it difficult for us to have a proper discussion. It makes me feel frustrated and uncomfortable. I’d really like you to call or meet with me when we have things to discuss.’ Being direct and assertive, but polite, is essential in making sure all parties can try to understand each other.

Admittedly sorting an office feud isn’t the easiest thing to achieve, but tackling it head on is infinitely better than dealing with the tense and traumatic atmosphere of a toxic workplace.Tara Daynes is runs her own HR consultancy providing training for non-profit organisations. 

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