Ask Joe: Does conflict in the workplace lead to better results?
Weston is executive director of the Fierce Civility Project and the author of "Mastering Respectful Confrontation."
My work colleague thinks conflict is good and leads to better results. Some of my other colleagues seem to be okay with his abrasive, combative behavior. He likes to make fun of me and calls me "sensitive" if I call him on it. It's exhausting. How can I deal with him?
Bullied and Exhausted
I can imagine you are having a tough time if you are feeling both bullied and exhausted. My first suggestion is to see what steps you can take to cultivate "resilience." In the Fierce Civility practice, we define resilience as the capacity to address challenges with ease, skill and confidence. Resilience is not enduring struggles. When you have cultivated what we call "resilient power," you feel physically vital, emotionally stable and mentally clear. Are you pushing yourself — a kind of self-bullying — to work in a way that isn't serving you, causing you to burn out? What self-care practices can you build into your day to reduce exhaustion and increase your energy and effectiveness?
Now let's address the issue with your colleague. Start with asking some clarifying questions. In the conflict resolution world, you will often hear about "good" conflict and "bad" conflict. Bad conflict causes harm. Good conflict can use the tension of differences to initiate more creativity and focus. At the Fierce Civility Project we try to minimize the need to use words like "good" and "bad," which, as judgments, can create separation. The important question is, "To what degree is the conflict bringing harm, benefits or some combination of both?"
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So, on some level, if he is suggesting that using "good" conflict can inspire, focus and make the team more effective, and if it works for everyone involved, I can see his viewpoint. So, I would suggest asking him, in a truly curious, respectful way, "What do you mean by conflict?" And, "What do you think it should look like?" If it includes respect and a commitment to not harming, then I would say try it out. You may develop more resilience in the process.
However, stating that conflict is a way to get better results could be a way to excuse harmful behavior, or avoid being held accountable for bullying. This is different. If he has no concern about harming others, then I would start with clarifying and stating your boundaries. Where do you draw the line with how you are treated? When does the process of dealing with challenges and deadlines go from feeling uncomfortable (which can be healthy) to feeling unsafe?
You can't change people, but, with respect and patience, you can influence behavior. Find a time and place when you can talk to him, where you both feel safe and not attacked. Make him aware of his specific behavior without judgment, how it is affecting you, and what you would need to function in a work environment that is productive and not exhausting. Can you clarify why this way of working feels exhausting for you? Hopefully this will make him consider his approach.
Perhaps add the message, "I can see how you might think that this is a good strategy for getting the best out of people. And I can see how it works with some. I would like to continue to do my best work. However, with my kind of personality and value system, using conflict is not the best strategy to get me to excel. Can we discuss other options?"
I am not guaranteeing that this will get him to suddenly behave differently, but it is certainly a start in terms of helping you clarify what your boundaries are and how to advocate for yourself. Feel free to get back in touch if you have any more questions (or check out my book, "Mastering Respectful Confrontation," to find out more ways to effectively confront someone, as well as ways to cultivate more resilient power).
With clarifying power,
"Ask Joe" is dedicated to exploring the best ways to transform tensions and bridge divides. Our resident advice columnist and conflict resolution specialist, Joe Weston, is here to answer your questions in order to resolve tension, polarization, or conflict.To Ask Joe, please submit questions to: AskJoe@Fulcrum.us.
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