Is a difficult boss or colleague giving you the blues at work? Follow this seven-step guide to heal co-worker conflict and do your part to create a positive workplace culture. By Shane Conroy
Anyone who has worked in a toxic practice knows exactly how important a positive workplace culture is to employee satisfaction. When you get along with your boss and colleagues, it’s a pleasure to go to work. But throw an unreasonable boss or difficult colleague or a personality clash into the mix and your workday can quickly become a nightmare.
A recent Tiny Pulse survey of 25,000 employees across the world backs that up. It revealed that employees who rate their workplace culture poorly are 24 per cent more likely to resign. But what if you can’t afford to—or simply don’t want to—quit your job?
While it’s true that workplace culture tends to be set from the top down, there are some steps you can take to improve your relationship with difficult workmates.
Step 1: Identify illegal conduct
Serious or illegal conduct should not be self-managed. If you feel that you’ve experienced sexual harassment, discrimination or workplace bullying, go straight to your practice manager or senior supervisor. Your practice should have a formal process in place to investigate serious breaches in workplace conduct standards.
“Any illegal conduct should never be tolerated in the workplace,” says Julie Parker, co-founder and educator at Julie Parker Practice Success. “If you don’t get a satisfactory response when you go to your boss or practice manager, you can report sexual harassment or discrimination to the Australian Human Rights Commission. In serious cases, you might even choose to get the police involved.”
Step 2: Don’t react in the moment
Illegal conduct aside, reacting to a difficult co-worker in the moment will only feed the flames of conflict. If you feel you’ve been wronged, remove yourself from the immediate situation and take some deep breaths.
“Often a co-worker’s actions or words can take us by surprise,” says Parker. “When we feel stunned, it’s easy to snap back or react poorly before we’ve had a chance to think through our response. This usually only makes the relationship worse. Instead, step back and consider how you can make your next action constructive.”
Step 3: Practise self-reflection
If you’re experiencing a personality clash with your boss or a co-worker, it’s a good idea to start with self-reflection. Try to put emotion aside and honestly assess your role in the conflict. It usually does, after all, take two to tango.
“Take some space to reflect on the impact you might be having on the situation,” says Bethan Flood, HR general manager at Prime Practice. “If you ascertain something you have done is contributing to the problem, apologising will go a long way to alleviating the issues you’re experiencing.”
Step 4: Seek outside perspectives
Individuals tend to perceive the same situation differently. That’s not suggesting you’re wrong about your role in the conflict, it’s just part of being human. Talk to a trusted senior colleague or an experienced friend about what you’re going through. But leave accusations out of it. Simply describe events as accurately as you can.
“The emotions involved in a personality conflict can sometimes feel quite confusing. It’s important to approach any conflict with a calm, objective mindset.”
Julie Parker, co-founder, Julie Parker Practice Success
“The emotions involved in a personality conflict can sometimes feel quite confusing,” says Parker. “It’s important to approach any conflict with a calm, objective mindset. Sharing your experience with others can help to bring perspective to the situation and make the solution much clearer.”
Step 5: Have an adult conversation
Now that you’ve taken the time to reflect on your own impact on the relationship breakdown, and have used outside perspectives to come from an objective place, it may be time to have an adult conversation with your difficult colleague. Stay calm and don’t make accusations. Admit your role in the conflict, and invite their feedback on what you can do to improve the relationship.
“Try to get to the heart of the conflict with a calm and balanced conversation,” says Flood.
“It’s not about distributing blame or venting your emotions. Rather, seek clarification from your colleague about what they feel is causing the relationship breakdown. They may be unaware that there’s a problem, and could be just as open to mature self-reflection as you are.”
Step 6: Call in extra help
If the conversation with your co-worker doesn’t go well, the next step is to talk to your practice manager or senior supervisor about the situation.
“Don’t rush into making a formal complaint straight away,” says Flood. “Simply sit down with your practice manager and calmly explain the situation. Listen to their guidance and genuinely try any informal processes they suggest before escalating the issue with a formal complaint.”
“It can also be a good idea to call in an external consultant to act as an independent facilitator,” adds Parker.
“It’s important to give all parties equal weight and respect, and not to fall into co-worker alliances that will only spread a toxic workplace culture throughout the practice.”
Step 7: Plan your exit
When all is said and done, if you feel the situation is still untenable, it might be time to move on. But avoid temper tantrums here too.
“If a legal response isn’t relevant, it’s best to leave with no ill will. Offer your resignation with respect and give the amount of notice required,” says Parker. “Any extra conflict you create will just be a reason for your boss to give you a poor reference.”