‘Don’t take it personally’: three common workplace clashes – and how to deal with them
By Ali Walker,2023-01-31
In our everyday interactions there are people we click with and others with whom we clash. This is a fact of life. So what can you do when a colleague’s way of working affects not just your own productivity but also the broader harmony of the team?
Related: My colleague wants more attention than I can give. How can I manage this with kindness? | Leading questions
With my PhD research in group dynamics, and as a consultant on organisational culture, I work with individuals and teams across all industries and organisation types to help people deal with this situation.
As the holidays draw to a close and colleagues return from leave, now is a great time to reflect on our professional relationships – the ones that work, and the ones that don’t. Thankfully, there’s a strategy to deal with the less-harmonious workplace relationships.
The three most common workplace clashes
Communication clashes happen when people have different ways of processing and expressing information.
For example: James is a chief executive in the first year of his role. He wants to build trust in his executive team and likes to talk through strategic decisions with the group. One team member is often quiet during these meetings; the day after, he sends James long emails outlining his thoughts.
A request for flexible working by a young person might be perceived by a more experienced manager as ‘slacking off’
In the workplace, one person might like to process their thoughts and ideas through conversation (outward processing), whereas another prefers to process their thoughts in quiet reflection (inward processing) and then express their ideas once they have settled on a way forward. This explains the difference between James and his team member.
In another example, one person might perceive that they have been rudely interrupted in a meeting while the other person simply thinks they are expressing their enthusiasm for an idea.
Cultural conditioning clashes occur when people come from different backgrounds and have opposing relationship values in relation to gender roles, age, education, ethnicity, religion, political beliefs and socioeconomic backgrounds – and even differing cultural approaches to humour.
For example: John is Sue’s supervisor at a correctional facility. John often makes jokes at Sue’s expense in front of other colleagues. When Sue explains to John that she doesn’t appreciate the jokes, John laughs it off and says that she is taking him too seriously. His advice is to lighten up if she wants to stay working in the place long-term.
Here, John’s idea of light-hearted banter is highly offensive to Sue, who feels disrespected at work.
In another scenario, a request for flexible working by a young person might be perceived by a more experienced manager as “slacking off” even though the person making the request knows they are more productive and efficient at home.
Cultural conditioning can impact the way we behave as leaders and how we approach conflict. This is the unconscious bias we all carry when we relate to others.
Related: Gen Z workers should be proud of being ‘snowflakes’ rather than martyrs | Hannah Jewell
Working style clashes occur when people have different preferences in relation to their working environment: whether they work from home or in the office; in a team or independently; in short spurts or for longer stretches; and whether they complete work in advance or the night before.
For example: Amreeta and Jan are working together on a pitch to be delivered next month. Amreeta wants to brainstorm early on and spend half an hour each day working on the pitch whereas Jan would prefer to think about the pitch in the week it is being delivered.
How to deal with difficult co-workers
If your interactions with a co-worker go beyond a personality clash and into the territory of workplace bullying or exploitation, make sure you let your manager know immediately. If this isn’t an option, talk to HR. The example given of John belittling Sue falls in this category. At this point, it is often useful to use mediation to move forward.
Related: I’ll never regret following my mum’s best-ever advice: ‘If you’re going to say something nice, say it in writing’
For other scenarios, here’s the process I recommend to respond to workplace conflict.
1. Don’t take the clash personally
Acknowledge that clashes are a normal part of life and calmly work out whether the conflict falls into the communication, cultural conditioning or working clash category (or all of the above).
2. Take a moment to reflect
Ask yourself: what is it about this person’s behaviour that provokes me? Is this person bothering me because they have a trait that I’d like to possess? Are they exhibiting a behavioural trait I don’t like but that I see in myself? For example, is Jan annoyed by Amreeta’s work style because Jan wishes she were more systematic in her approach to tasks?
3. Share with your team
Make some time to talk to your team and share everyone’s preferences for communication, culture and working styles. In meetings, James the chief executive could make time for each team member to share their thoughts; afterwards, he could encourage them to dot-point their thoughts in a shared document.
4. Develop a communication plan
Based on the team’s preferences, develop a plan that supports each person’s needs. Create a shared language surrounding communication, culture and working styles. Identify what a typical day looks like for each person working in their preferred state. Once everyone in the team understands the needs of each other person, it will be easier for them to behave with empathy and respect. The team could agree on times when it’s optimal to connect and quiet times for focus and individual work; and agree to use an online communication tool so remote workers don’t miss out.
When issues arise, as they inevitably will, leaders must address them quickly and firmly. It’s worth investing in these workplace solutions – I’ve seen them implemented in a range of work settings with great success.
Dr Ali Walker is the author of Click or Clash? , available now through Penguin (RRP $35).
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