How to manage personality clashes at work

You can't always change your colleagues, but you can change your actions, says leadership coach Catherine Stothart.

by Catherine Stothart
Last Updated: 31 May 2019

We’ve all had colleagues we find "difficult" – perhaps the impatient go-getter, the stick-to-the-rules pedant, the excitable attention-seeker or the indecisive procrastinator. It’s more than an irritation - personality clashes are the top cause of conflict at work and diversity in personality probably causes more problems than other forms of diversity. 

They are also unavoidable. For a start, it’s easier to build rapport and mutual understanding with people who are like ourselves, which applies as much to personality as to the more obvious similarities of social class, gender or race.

Without mutual understanding, we judge people by the impact of their behaviour on us, while overlooking the likely positive intention behind that behaviour. For example, someone who delays a decision may be aiming to get the best possible result, not trying to annoy us by procrastinating, yet if we experience it negatively we may respond in kind, resulting in a downward spiral of unhelpful behaviours. 

At the same time, we lack the self-awareness to appreciate how our behaviour affects them: research shows that often we don’t even know when our behaviour is seen as considerate or rude, something which is complicated by our position in the hierarchy.

When our beliefs about ourselves, about them and about the situation – beliefs which drive our emotions –are not shared, we experience this as a threat to our self-worth and push our own approach harder (see Elias Porter’s Strength Deployment Inventory theory), leading to an escalation of conflict.

How can we manage these clashes?   

Getting on with people doesn’t mean you have to be "nice" or agree with them. And conflict comes in many guises. Conflict over the task might be the vital catalyst to get the best outcomes.  But personal conflict can undermine progress.

You can’t change other people’s behaviour, but you can manage your own and this will influence how they respond to you. Here are some tips and techniques:

  1. We tend to judge ourselves by our intention ("I didn’t mean to be rude, I was only….") and others by their impact ("he was rude!").  We need to switch this around and judge others by their intention, and ourselves by our impact. Make allowances for how they make you feel and try to understand what they were trying to do: the colleague who comes across as impatient and demanding might intend to get quick, achievable results; your peer who appears slow and inflexible might want to ensure there is a carefully thought-through plan.   
  2. Appreciate that when people react emotionally, it’s a sign that their needs are not being met – ask open questions to clarify what they want.  Find out what people are feeling rather than what they think. If you can get past your flight or fight response to see beyond their behaviour, you might be able to find common ground and the opportunity for collaboration.
  3. Take a third person perspective to notice the impact of your behaviour on the other person – if you were a fly on the wall, what would you see? 
  4. Be mindful of what is happening in your body – tension in the jaw and shoulders, faster heart rate and shorter, shallower breaths are all signs that your body is preparing for fight or flight. Take a deep breath, count to 10, move away while you gather your thoughts.
  5. Use active assertiveness – say what you want clearly, use self-confident speech and body language. 
  6. Switch from the past or present to the future and use inclusive language – "how can we take this forward?"; "what shall we do next?" 

I can’t promise that these techniques will work in every situation with every person.  But they are resilient behaviours - you will feel more effective when in conflict with colleagues, and a lot better about yourself. 

Catherine Stothart is a leadership coach and author of  How to Get On with Anyone: Gain the Confidence and Charisma to Communicate with any Personality Type (Pearson £12.99). 

Image credit: Ichigo121212/Pixabay


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