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Jul 12 2010

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AU: Working with the enemy

By James Adonis, The Sydney Morning Herald

If you think your workplace is toxic, get a load of this. Legislators in an American town called Nottingham have voted to allow employees to bring their guns to work. Despite an online poll showing that 73 per cent of people support the move, the decision was reversed last week due to public outrage. So, here are some tips on dealing with workplace conflict…without the weapons.

The most comprehensive study I could find on the topic was released in 2008 by CPP Inc, the publishers of the Myers-Briggs profiling tools. In their global research, which didn’t include Australia, they found that employees in the UK spent 1.8 hours a week dealing with workplace conflict. In the US it was 2.8 hours a week. I’m not sure where Australia sits on the time-wasting continuum, but even if it’s just an hour a week, that’s intense. Globally, 85 per cent of employees say it’s been a problem for them.

Workplace conflict is often unavoidable. Whether it’s colleague to colleague (I’ve had female employees threaten to stab each other), or between a boss and a staff member (I was once the recipient of death threats from an aggrieved worker), clashes are inevitable when you get different personalities working together for eight hours a day. The question becomes: what should you do when it happens?

Vivian Scott is a professional mediator and the author of Conflict Resolution at Work for Dummies. I asked her for five suggestions on what people can do when they’re confronted by conflict at work.

“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.”

To add to her first tip, conflict isn’t always bad. Healthy competition can be excellent for productivity and idea generation. But when it transforms into verbal warfare and open hostility, absenteeism spikes up and the conflict frequently doesn’t end until someone resigns.

“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.”

She’s on to something with respect. There was a big survey conducted by AchieveGlobal in 2009 where employees across all generations were asked for the most valued attribute at work. Respect came out on top.

“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.”

That might be tough in Australia. Several years ago, extensive research by Human Synergistics of 35,000 managers here and in New Zealand found that the most common style of management in this country was ‘avoidance’.

“Control what you can control and that means you,” is 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.”

I polled 2,400 employees to discover what they hated the most at work, and the results came as a total shock. The aspect of work that employees detest with the greatest ferocity? Their colleagues. Interestingly, what they also love the most are… their colleagues. So, if their workmates are brilliant, they’re in heaven. But if their workmates suck, they’re in hell.

“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?”

Vivian Scott’s five suggestions aren’t exhaustive. But at the very least, they won’t have trigger-friendly employees reaching for the holster.

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