Are you ready to resolve work conflicts?

Workforce Blog: How to Build Bridges with Colleagues

Dec 17, 2019

by Mara Goldberg

Do any of your work colleagues drive you so crazy that you avoid the person or have persistent negative thoughts about them? Does the difficult relationship contribute to your stress—or even affect your productivity?

If so, you would probably benefit from more tools to develop healthier work relationships. But first ask yourself, “Are you really ready?”

People sometimes try to resolve their conflicts before they are ready, like eating strawberries before they are ripe. Yuck.

In these cases, they typically struggle to engage in productive dialogue. Rather, they stay defensive and become unwilling to hear the other person’s perspective. In our work with clients, we make sure there are two conditions of readiness (or ripeness) before moving forward.

First, the people involved must want the situation to improve.

This requires them to recognize that they actually are benefitting from the status quo, which may seem counterintuitive (i.e. after all, isn’t it nicer to just avoid confrontation?).

Second, they need to be curious about how they are contributing to the situation.

This requires them to be vulnerable with someone they might not trust.

I was serving as a coach for David, the head of IT for an environmental engineering company. In our first meeting he complained about Sarah, the head of accounting. He said that Sarah and her team always whined about IT to their mutual boss, Abbie, which made him look bad. Worse, they dumped work on the IT department that was out of IT’s scope. David found it hard to sit in meetings with Sarah without getting upset.

Sarah told me that David and his staff always dismissed the accounting group’s requests for IT support, calling them “the department of no.” She said that every month something new went wrong with the IT systems, which created extra work for her team. Plus, she was tired of David’s condescending tone.

Related Workforce Blog Post: Four Tips for Speaking Up to Your Boss

On the one hand they both claimed to be unhappy with their work relationship. But on the other hand, I could detect that both benefited from the situation—David felt like the victim of Sarah’s sniping, while Sarah felt like the victim of the “evil IT department.” They could carry on like this forever, or until Abbie intervened, which she did by asking me to help.

I met with each individually to assess their readiness. Both disagreed with my theory that they received some psychological benefit from maintaining the current situation. They claimed that they really did want things to improve.

If that were the case, I asked, then why hadn’t they taken steps to improve the situation? It seemed that they didn’t really want to change their relationship; they just wanted the other person to change.

However, both met the second criteria for ripeness by expressing curiosity about their own contribution to the situation, so I went against my better judgment and met with them.

The meeting didn’t go so well. Sure, they admitted how they contributed to the situation. Yet once they provided feedback to each other, the conversation deteriorated into mutual accusation. They both claimed to suffer from the other’s hurtful behavior. I told them that it appeared to me that they still preferred their current victimhood rather than really wanting the situation to change.

We all left the meeting feeling frustrated. Clearly, they weren’t ripe yet.

Related Workforce Blog Post: How Engineers Can Resolve Conflict and Save Their Business

A week later I received a call from David. He said that he and Sarah met and agreed that they finally felt ready to work it out. In our next meeting they were both more open to listen. They acknowledged that they had been colluding with each other to avoid dealing with the underlying issues, and they apologized for their negative behavior toward each other.

As they began to focus on how to improve the situation, the temperature between them cooled. They committed to take some next steps, which included meeting with Abbie to tell her their plans of improving collaboration between their groups, and with each other.

While David and Sarah may never be best friends, they were finally ripe enough to design a more productive future.

If you want to improve some work relationships but feel stuck, first honestly assess your own ripeness. You might even realize that in some ironic way, you are benefitting from the status quo. Once you acknowledge this, you may be ready to do the work it takes to develop healthier work relationships.

Mara Goldberg (pictured above) and Robert Goldberg are co-founders of Marigold Mediation, LLC., a consulting firm dedicated to helping organizations build healthy relationships. Goldberg can be reached at mara@marigoldmediation.com. 

Opinions expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASME.

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