Wright Foundation | March 29, 2017

Coworker Conflict: How to Productively Deal with Disagreement

“Call out culture” is becoming more common. People used to pussyfoot around, avoiding saying how they really felt under the veil of “politeness.”

coworker conflict

They might have been passive aggressive about it…or they might have suppressed it and exploded later. They avoided confrontation, especially with coworkers or friends. Now, in the last few years, particularly online, there’s a shift to expressing how we feel more often—for some of us at least, we’ve seemingly found our “inner New Yorker.”

You might think this is unhealthy or a bad thing—but really, it is and it isn’t. It’s all about the intentionality behind your “call out.”

Speaking up, expressing your needs, wants and yearnings, and setting boundaries—these are all positive actions. They’re the fundamentals of engagement and expression. If it’s done with honesty and with intention, engagement is a force for good. Engagement brings about mutual respect, positive change, and even transformation.

So find your voice! Let it out! Stand up for yourself and refuse to be a doormat. Refuse to get sucked into someone’s drama! If someone treats you badly, saying, “Hey, I don’t deserve this” doesn’t make you a jerk, it makes you stronger. (Hey, if they ignore or dismiss you, then they’re the a**hole.)

Speak up! Stand up!
Engage in conflict and don’t back down.

We all want to be seen in the truth of who we really are. We want others to recognize us, to KNOW us and respect us. Engaging with another person is about reciprocity—they see you and you see them. You’re both acknowledging the humanity that exists within each of us. You’re both trying to understand each other and find common ground. It doesn’t mean you acquiesce or even agree about the topic, but you’re both listening and obeying the rules of engagement.

When Someone Doesn’t Stick to the Rules

On the flip side, there are cases, such as with social media, where there’s a perception that we can say whatever the hell we want. Things we would have never said to someone’s face, we now type as a comment on Facebook. We say things we’d never say in front of a crowd. Everyone has an opinion (and you know what they say); but under the veil of anonymity, we start to get it all out regardless of the stink.

There’s a balance. There’s making an intelligent argument, and engaging in discussion and dialogue. There are ways to fight fair, but “yelling about it” on the Internet is one-sided and disengaging. Hurling one-sided insults, threats or cuts is no way to affect positive change.

While technology can be a great tool, as it helps us learn, grow, connect, and expand our world, it can also be a place where people forget the consequences of their actions. People get themselves into real trouble—career-ending trouble—because they can stupidly forget that everything you post online has real-world repercussions.

Similarly, in the workplace, we might hear of collusion and things said behind closed doors. These have repercussions, too.

The “he said/she said” drama that often goes on in offices can cause real damage. Entertaining this type of drama only sucks you into the pattern of blame, shame and justification. One person becomes the victim, one person becomes the rescuer, and one person is the aggressor. We call this the “drama triangle.”

If this sounds familiar to you, maybe you grew up in a family where this was the norm or maybe you see these patterns in your marriage and in other relationships. The drama triangle is a repeating pattern that’s easy to get stuck in, and it can be hard to extricate yourself from the pattern.

Avoid the Drama Triangle

Learning instead, the rules of engagement, avoiding blame, shame and justification, and fighting fair can all help us keep things above board and moving forward. We talk more in depth about these important rules in our book The Heart of the Fight, in which you can learn to fight fairly and productively.

If someone at work does or says something you don’t like or agree with—let’s say they take credit for a project you did—do you discuss it with them directly?

Direct action is always more productive than passive aggressive or “hidden middle finger” actions. Better yet, it keeps you out of the drama triangle.

When you go into a discussion, assume responsibility for your role and action in the situation, and assume goodwill on the part of your coworker. This can be a challenge, especially if you’ve built them up to be the villain. In reality, they may be coming from a place of insecurity or they might not even realize the consequence of their over-step.

When we go into a situation with guns ablaze and accusations flying, we can set ourselves up for a conversation that goes nowhere. Instead, remember one of the most important rules of engagement is to accentuate the positive. Another important rule? No one in any situation gets/takes more than 50% of the blame.

Does that mean it’s your fault if someone took credit for your work or if someone else instigates the argument? It’s not your “fault,” but it’s your responsibility to set appropriate boundaries, to communicate your expectations, and to express yourself in a direct manner now.

YOU are responsible for your own happiness—100% of it! If you’re unhappy with your job, your situation, or the way something was handled, it’s up to you to change it.

We often forget this, when we blame our coworkers for our dissatisfaction and frustrations at the office. It’s up to us to address the situation and express our feelings. We can then move forward or change our role (or even liberate ourselves from a negative situation), but we need to take back the power as being our own.

If you are unhappy with a situation at work, YOU have the power to change it. You have the power to engage productively and proactively. Speak up, stand up, and call out.

You don’t have to be rude—in fact, productive engagement is often the opposite. If you’re expressing yourself using the rules of engagement, you’ll approach it from a place of accentuating the positive, assuming responsibility, and not passing off the blame. This sets you up for a conversation that can move things forward and make things better.

So if you’re biting your tongue, or venting about your coworkers on social media or to the others in your office: stop. It’s time to man (or woman) up and engage the situation head on!

For more on how to get what you want out of you career, your relationships and your life as a whole, please visit us at the Wright Foundation website. Remember YOU have the power to change your world!


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Wright Living is a division of the Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential, a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Living performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.