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Five Surefire Ways to Cause Conflict at Work

Five Surefire Ways to Cause Conflict at Work


Whether you’re new to the workforce or a seasoned veteran, it always makes good business sense to be aware of how your actions with coworkers can create a positive working environment or turn an otherwise slightly dysfunctional workplace into a fully-armed battlefield.

As a professional mediator, I've seen my share of office politics and soured working relationships. Though each workplace is unique, I've discovered some fairly common ways people cause problems with coworkers that they later come to regret. Avoid landing in hot water by steering clear of these common behaviors.

1. Starting Every Sentence with “Listen, You Idiot...”

Not filtering anything you say can feel good in the moment -- but only to you. Belittling, shaming or embarrassing coworkers tags you as the office bully. If respect is important to you (and you know it is), being able to disagree with someone without name-calling, heavy sighs, eye rolling or verbal insults shows you can address a troubling situation respectfully without making it worse.

Instead of approaching colleagues with the attitude that negative motivation is the best tactic to get them to act ("Are we still paying you?!"), adopt an attitude that any kind of personal bashing has no place in a successful business. Sharing positive feedback or giving praise doesn't create a team of namby-pamby babies who need constant coddling. Rather, it creates an environment in which others are free to compliment you as much and as often as you compliment them. What goes around comes around, so think before you speak.

2. Believing Only Your Ideas Count

Taking action without consulting anyone else can start some really good fights. If you want to burn colleagues who are tired of your Monday morning memos surprising them with decisions in which they had absolutely no say, then by all means only use your ideas. Doubting a coworker's ability to contribute to your success or believing that constructive criticism is just a backdoor way for someone to sabotage you can be a mistake. There's always the exception to the rule, but if a colleague is trying to warn you of potential pitfalls, take him seriously. Even employees beneath you can come up with great solutions, so be open to a variety of ideas from a variety of sources.

Asking a few well-placed questions before making a decision will show others that you’re mindful and capable of seeing the bigger picture. Being arrogant, paranoid and thinking you have to make all the decisions by yourself can weigh heavily on you. If more than three people have told you the same thing about your behavior or attitude toward decision making, it's time for an adjustment on your part.

3. Pitting People Against Each Other in the Name of Healthy Competition

Sparring works well for world-class boxers but throwing unsuspecting coworkers into the ring doesn't toughen them up. It just makes them angry when they realize you're orchestrating tension between them. Some believe that pitting employees against each other is a great way to eke out a few more sales or finish a project sooner. But doubling or tripling efforts on the same task doesn't result in a positive outcome if employees are tripping over each other, focused more on getting upset with one another than on getting the job done. Asking more than one person to work on a task and then picking a favorite doesn't benefit anyone either. The winner is put an awkward position with her peers; the loser is humiliated.

Similarly, having a with-us-or-against-us attitude or making disparaging remarks about other groups may create new conflicts out of old rivalries. Rather than using competition as a way to squash others, create and build a new definition of success. If you personally would like to get noticed for a job well done, build people up based on their individual strengths and talents, and they'll return the favor. Competing against yourself -- and winning -- is always the most satisfying (especially at review time).

4. Believing That Mystery Is a Good Thing

Matchmakers claim that mystery can be intoxicating when you first meet a potential mate, but being coy at work frustrates people. Using wimpy language like "when you get to it," giving hazy instructions before running out of the room or making someone else break the news to a coworker that he's not going anywhere until he finishes the marketing plan will create problems. You won't be seen as the good guy if you let vagueness become your communication standard.

Avoid being the employee whose behavior can best be described as "trying to nail gelatin to the wall." Don't let others think you're on the same page and then bamboozle them with the complete opposite. Your colleagues will lose all trust in you, and your boss won’t be able to count on you because your word means nothing.
Your coworkers will appreciate clear, concise language. It's OK to disagree but make sure people know what you’re disagreeing with. It's much easier to come to a resolution on real issues than it is to play 20 questions or resolve the wrong problems.

5. Never Admitting You've Done Anything Wrong

Hiding or ignoring the fact that you've mishandled a situation or slinking around to garner sympathy for poor outcomes takes more energy than humbly owning up to an error and working to repair whatever damage your actions may have caused. Ignoring occasions for self-reflection or side-stepping learning opportunities makes others feel they need to organize an inquisition against you. The fight becomes the focus rather than the work.

The easiest way to deflate anger with a coworker is to listen to her perspective, come clean about your participation in the conflict and work together to figure out ways to avoid similar situations in the future. Simply keeping your blinders on and worrying only about yourself isn't enough. Consider her point of view (remember, understanding her perspective doesn't mean you agree) and see if you can come up with a solution that satisfies both of you. Your coworkers and career will thank you.

[Vivian Scott is a Professional Certified Mediator and the author of Conflict Resolution at Work for Dummies. Having spent many years in the competitive and often stress-filled world of high tech marketing, Scott realized that resolving conflict within the confines of office politics was paramount to success. Prior to retirement from corporate life, Scott developed the “America at Work” video series. She is also the recipient of a rare personal award from the Small Business Administration for her commitment to small business development.]

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