27 September 2023

Learning to navigate colleague conflicts

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Lisa Earle McLeod* recalls frustrations that boiled over into a shouting match, and how both parties were able to put things to rights.

I found myself increasingly frustrated with my work colleague, but I bit my tongue in meetings.

I ignored their eye rolls when I brought up new ideas and I didn’t point out how many times they had dropped the ball.

Then one day, I snapped. I went on a verbal rant, finally delivering the speech I had been rehearsing in my shower for months, pointing out every single thing that was driving me crazy.

Apparently, my colleague had been rehearsing a little speech about me too. They had all my character defects at the front of their mind and unleashed them on me.

It escalated quickly. We both stormed out of the office irate.

The next night we had an important event, one that we’d been preparing for months.

Right before the event started, we both realised the people about to go on stage didn’t have the updated material.

The two of us made instant eye contact across the room, gestured to each other, and came together quickly to solve the problem, despite our screaming match the day before.

In that moment, I realised, we both cared deeply about the outcome for the team.

To make matters worse, all this happened at church! I was the president of the board, and my colleague was a staff member.

It wasn’t exactly a spiritual experience. Yet, it’s emblematic of many workplace fights.

In the following years, I got better at managing workplace conflict. Now, I coach executives, who despite their high status are not immune to workplace arguments.

Here are four tips to work through the tension.

Ladder up to how much you both care

What I realised in the church fight, was that we both cared; we wouldn’t have got into the fight if we didn’t care.

Have you ever got into a fight with your spouse, then something happens to one of your kids?

The fight evaporates, and you come together to solve the problem.

The fight returns later, but when you ladder up to how much you care about the shared outcome, it helps you come together in your working relationship.

Before you come back together, get your own emotions out

One reason fights get ugly is because emotions have been on a low simmer for a while.

You clench your jaw in the name of being ‘professional’ then one day, you just can’t.

Have you ever seen a toddler throw a tantrum? Eventually, after some thrashing, they tire themselves out. We all have an inner toddler.

To help your negative emotions flow out of you, try an intense workout, dance to wild music, or vent to a friend who will let you vent without offering solutions.

Acknowledge something happened

You don’t have to recount it, but don’t ignore it either.

You want to say (or put in writing) something to address the awkwardness.

Even a simple: “I know yesterday got heated, it’s obvious we both care a lot. I’d like to clear the air.”

Own your part

This one is the most challenging. If you said mean things, apologise.

It doesn’t matter what they did. If they were 95 per cent responsible, you still need to own your five per cent.

Sometimes it’s more effective to do this in writing, where the other person has the chance to process what you’re saying and doesn’t have to respond to you immediately.

Just like in your personal life, work arguments are not irrecoverable.

In fact, you can come out of a workplace argument even stronger when you calibrate to a shared purpose, manage your emotions, and own your part.

When we put a bunch of imperfect humans in high-stress situations, some arguments are inevitable. It doesn’t mean your workplace is dysfunctional.

Most of the time, it just means you care.

*Lisa Earle McLeod is the leadership expert best known for creating the popular business concept Noble Purpose. She is the author of Selling with Noble Purpose and Leading with Noble Purpose. She can be contacted at mcleodandmore.com.

This article first appeared at mcleodandmore.com.

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