Dealing with challenging situations and conflict at work

12 June 2018

Conflict at work can be tricky, and it’s important to know why it happens and how to deal with it.

People come from different backgrounds and have different approaches to both work and peer and colleague interactions. When these approaches clash, conflicts can arise. It’s important to remember that, in most cases, people don’t mean for their words or manner to cause offence. However, if it is causing a problem, it needs to be dealt with so it doesn’t continue to cause clashes within the team.

“We call this challenging behaviour, including things like anger, frustration or any behaviour that makes people feel uncomfortable,” explains Access EAP clinical services director Marcela Slepica.

If you‘re facing some challenging workplace behaviours, there are a few things to remember:


If you avoid conflict, it won’t go away

“When there’s challenging behaviour in the workplace, most people want to avoid it so they don’t cause more conflict,” says Slepica. “But if you don’t deal with it, it usually doesn’t go away.” If the challenges are part of someone’s personality or manner, it’s safe to assume they either don’t know they’re coming across as rude or brash, or they don’t know it could be changed.

Avoidance, or putting up with situations you aren’t comfortable with, isn’t good for your own wellbeing. “If you’re so worried that you don’t want to go to work or you feel the situation has been building up, that’s not good for your mental health,” says Slepica. “It can lead to anxiety or depression.”


Plan your conversation ahead of time

Conversations about challenges you’re facing with others are hard, so they should be approached with some thought. “Try to be self-aware,” suggests Slepica, “and think about why you’re uncomfortable or what you’re afraid of. If you’re aware of what it is, then you can prepare to talk about it.”

Think about what you want to achieve from the conversation, and how you’re planning to approach it. You need to consider the right time to approach a person, too. “If you approach them while you’re emotional, it can easily escalate,” Slepica says.

Use “I” statements

There are certain ways to word the conversation to make it less daunting for you and easier for your colleague to hear. “Saying ’I feel anxious when you do this’ or ‘I feel scared’ is less confrontational than saying things like ‘you are being rude’ or ‘you are undermining me’,” says Slepica.

When you start with “I” statements, rather than “you” statements, you take some of the emotion out of the conversation. “It makes it more objective,” says Slepica, “and helps you talk about the behaviour and not pointing the finger at the person or get caught up in name calling, which just escalates a situation.”


Ask for help if you need it

If you don’t feel you can approach the person whose behaviour you’re finding challenging, speak with your manager or human resources department. They can either help you have a mediated conversation or they might refer you to an Employee Assistance Program via the organisation’s grievance process. “This usually happens when you’re so stressed about a situation that it’s been building up for a while,” Slepica says. “But it’s best if the manager can deal with a situation before it gets to that point.”


If you’re a manager, prepare yourself for these situations

“There will always be the potential for disagreements or bad behaviour, because people have different personalities and different needs,” says Slepica. Add to that a sometimes stressful environment or demands to perform and achieve targets, and the workplace can breed conflict. “Managers need to learn to not be afraid of that and to get some support in dealing with it,” Slepica adds.

One of the most important things for managers or team leaders when dealing with challenging behaviours or conflict is to not make it personal. Staying neutral is a key to not aggravating the situation further or creating sides.

Managing conflict training will benefit you and your staff, and taking proactive approaches such as team building can also be positive. For example, SuperFriend’s Teamtopia helps teams work together and better understand each other through team challenges and competing against other workplace teams.