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Nick Gilmour

Nick Gilmour

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Managing Workplace Conflicts (Without Damaging Your Career)

You are tasked with the challenge of working with ten, twenty and possibly hundreds of people for forty-hours or more per week.  Each of you is determined to make a good impression, excel at tasks and innovate where possible, and advance your career.  Competition is part of any workplace environment, and with it comes a variety of social behaviors that can be a trigger for conflict.

Expecting adults to “play nice” all the time is an impossible goal, when you factor that everyone has their own motivations, good (and bad) workplace and social habits.   And sometimes, for no reason at all, people simply do not like each other because of a personality, cultural or social conflict.

Employers and human resource professionals (and recruiters) understand that conflicts are inevitable, and bound to occur in every type of business environment, from start-up to corporate teams.   Employers do not expect that there will never be conflict between employees, but what they hope for, is that each professional is committed enough to the success of the organization to find a path to resolve issues, without compromising the performance of the team.

Easier said than done, right?   Not exactly.  It turns out that resolving interpersonal conflicts at work is based on a skill that can be acquired, if you are willing to consider a number of tools and approaches that work. Consider it an essential skill that all professionals need to master, to advance their career.

Assumptions and Incorrect Information

If you do not know the facts about a specific circumstance, are you prone to making educated guesses or assumptions to “fill in the blank” and make sense out of conflicts with other employees?  Making an assumption allows co-workers to vilify someone for a presumed action, without getting the facts.   Human nature predicts that most people will presume a negative, where there may be no malicious intention at all, and many presumptions on based on fear or apprehension, not truth.

That co-worker that squints when she stares at you?  Are you convinced that she is giving you an angry look?  She may just need new prescription glasses.   The co-worker who only says 1-2 words to you at lunch?  He may be shy.  While confrontation isn’t a good idea, asking polite questions can often diffuse feelings of anger or confusion.  It is also the first step to creating a sincere dialogue and new relationship with someone you work with, when you can clarify (in a polite, non-accusatory way) and diffusing small misunderstandings before they become disruptive problems.

Tug of War: Managing Competitive Colleagues

Frequently, ambitious career professionals can find themselves working with co-workers who have their sights and motivations set on the same roles or advancement opportunities.  Depending on your experience dealing with conflict, it can result in a positive or a negative outcome.

Competition is healthy, and while employers are looking for performance, they are also taking a hard look at soft skills when they consider advancing someone into a higher level role.  Skills such as the ability to collaborate with others, exercise patience and understanding, communicate and support the team/division goals even when you are supporting your own personal advancement goals.  Do you care enough about the performance of your team to accept the advancement of someone who has worked hard to distinguish themselves?

Everyone likes to win, but there can be more than one winner in a situation where colleagues are competing with each other.  It can bring out your best performance and most innovative side.  It can help you excel in your role, and if the promotion at hand is not for you, keep working at it.  Employees rarely know what roles they are being considered for in the future, so make a good impression whether you win and lose and be supportive of your colleagues to avoid career limiting conflicts.

When You Should Talk to Human Resources

The role of a human resource professional in your organization in part, is to help people resolve conflicts.  But often the resource of an HRM is misused by employees as a “reporting” mechanism, rather than as an opportunity to receive counseling, guidance and ideas for resolving a conflict on your own.

Reporting a colleague to the human resource department may be the only option where serious conflicts, including threats of violence, intimidation or bullying, or sexual misconduct are involved.   Most organizations are quick to act legally to help protect their employees and to preserve a safe work environment for their staff.

If your conflict is not of a legal nature, but rather an interpersonal one, your human resource manager can help you confidentially discuss the problem, and your approach.  He or she can offer ideas to improve communication and resolution, without a formal “sit down” and report, which can often escalate problems between co-workers.   Conflict resolution is a valuable soft skill that can be utilized in every aspect of business and personal life; it’s worth figuring out approaches that work well, and expanding your professional experience by finding a peaceful way to resolve miscommunication.
With increasing demand for quality employment, does it make sense to leave a job you excel at and enjoy, because of a conflict with a co-worker?  Be ethical, resourceful and sincere in your effort to resolve the conflict independently, but seek out other resources (including managers) should the conflict interfere with the ability for your team to perform.

Thank you for reading!
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