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Conflict from Workplace Behaviors

From Maria Simpson’s workplace newsletter: Two Minute Trainings

Years ago a wonderful little book appeared called Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. It was mostly about basic consideration for others such as taking turns, sharing, and not wrecking other people’s possessions.

Way too much conflict is generated by a simple lack of consideration, especially in the workplace, which can get competitive. I don’t entirely understand why competition and consideration can be thought of as mutually exclusive when, even at the Olympics, competitors aren’t damaging each other’s equipment or blaring loud music all night. Yes, it is a highly structured environment, but so are many workplaces, and yes, I remember Tonya Harding.

Every year my students, all working professionals, are asked to write about a workplace conflict, and every year I am astounded by the dumb behaviors people continue to exhibit at work. Many of the resulting conflicts could have been avoided with a little bit of consideration, and the rest could have been handled better if people just had better communications skills. (It would help if management stepped in appropriately, but that’s another column.)
People are still throwing other people’s food away without notice or permission (or just eating it), or taking things from other people’s desks without asking. What happened to respecting other people’s possessions?

The snarky emails just don’t go away. It’s the equivalent of saying mean things about others, and considerate people don’t do that.

People seem still to refuse to do the work assigned them, not just ask about it or show that they are overloaded, but flat out refuse because they want to do it their way and not the way it has been organized. One friend reported a few years ago that there were several, not just two, parallel systems for handling paperwork because each person who handled the information wanted it in a different format and wouldn’t do the work unless it was received in his or her personal format. When the systems were combined into one master system, some people refused to use it and were accommodated by others who did the work twice and used the old formats in addition to the new one. In another case, when someone wanted to continue to be the expert in a certain function, her suggestions for streamlining the function were incorporated into a new system, to which she agreed, and then refused to use because she thought her system was still better.

And there is always the problem of privacy being compromised by loud voices, music, and objectionable personal behaviors. I had not heard before that there are now conflicts over whether cell phones should be allowed in the bathrooms.

When faced with an annoying or difficult behavior, our response is based in part on our role in the conflict or role in the workplace. Maybe there is nothing we can do about someone refusing an assignment if that person doesn’t report to us, but there are things we can do when the behavior involves us.

First, decide if raising the issue is worth the trouble. Accommodating or avoiding are perfectly OK responses under many circumstances, but if you can’t avoid or accommodate, then raise the issue in a friendly way.

Then, don’t start with blame, accusation, or irritation. Start about three steps before that by asking if the behavior can be changed. (Would it be possible to . . . ?). Try stay casual so what is said doesn’t seem like a reprimand from mom. I personally dislike the smell of hot, fast food in a cubicle, and ask that people eat in the lunch room or in the fast food place. If they refuse, I find a way to leave the space. I probably need the break anyway. (My worst office ever was right next to the kitchen where Brussels sprouts were regularly burned in the microwave.)

Ask yourself what you can do to change the situation, too. Maybe you are being unreasonable, or imposing a personal standard that is not entirely appropriate. Should your behavior change too?

Don’t expect immediate change – you may have to ask more than once – but if it doesn’t change and interferes with your ability to get your work done, and you have genuinely tried to fix it, ask someone else how to handle it or go to a manager or HR if necessary. If you think your performance is at stake, then you might have to take more formal action.

However – and it’s a big one – remember that these conflicts over personal behavior can be avoided by demonstrating consideration for others. Maybe it’s time to bring back that book.

Have an absolutely wonderful week.


Maria Simpson

Maria Simpson, Ph.D. is an executive coach, consultant, trainer and mediator who has worked extensively with the corporate, non-profit and conflict resolution communities to promote incorporating conflict resolution into organizational systems and training people in the skills and approaches of mediation. MORE >

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