Workplace Wellness: Avoiding Conflicts with Coworkers

Lifespan Outpatient Psychiatry
Dealing with difficult people at work

Our work lives account for a good deal of our waking hours. Forty or more each week are often spent with the people at work. It’s no wonder many individuals have struggled with interpersonal issues in the workplace.

Personality Types

Lisa Shea, MD, a psychiatrist in Lifespan’s Outpatient Psychiatry Providence office, says, “It is usually the clash in personality traits that is the most likely cause of conflict in the work place.”

There are what is known as the “Big Five” personality types. Each of these domains are associated with particular traits. Daniela Boerescu, MD, a psychiatrist with Lifespan’s Outpatient Psychiatry program, explains them:

  1. Extraversion. This is associated with excitability, friendliness, confidence, and expressing emotion.
  2. Openness to experience. This includes traits such as imagination, curiosity, and an interest in new experiences.  
  3. Agreeableness. Among the traits in this domain are sympathy, selflessness, and thoughtfulness of others.
  4. Conscientiousness. Traits like self-discipline, being goal-oriented and organized, and preferring planned rather than spontaneous behavior are included in this personality type.
  5. Neuroticism.  This is the likeliness to experience negative emotions. It is associated with moodiness, anger, envy, guilt, fear or frustration.

Given the range of types, it’s understandable why different personality types may sometimes clash in the workplace. Someone with a high score on openness to experience and extraversion may come up with a totally different solution for a problem than someone with a high score on the conscientiousness. It doesn’t mean either one is wrong, but if they both feel strongly about doing it, it could create conflict.

At the same time, it might seem logical to assume that someone with a high score on the agreeableness factor could only minimize conflict. However, the “peace making“ behavior can reinforce passive-aggressive behavior (see below), which can also lead to conflict.

That is why it is important to avoid focusing on any one individual as the root of the problem. Instead, a better approach is to analyze the way a problem developed, try to understand the position of each party in the conflict, and then work together towards conflict resolution.

Other sources of conflict

Dr. Boerescu says there are any number of interpersonal issues that may arise at work.

  • Communication problems can lead to conflict. Misunderstandings may occur as a result of different cultural backgrounds or personal experiences. For example, one individual might make the exact comment to two different coworkers. If they belong to different cultures, they may perceive the comment in completely different ways.
  • Bullying, sexual harassment attempts to extract favors, discrimination/prejudice, and gossip can all serve to undermine collegial relationships at work.
  • Conflict may also occur when someone interferes with the objectives of a coworker. This is often displayed through verbal arguments or passive-aggressive behaviors, and in some cases could escalate to physically aggressive behaviors.

Avoiding passive-aggressiveness

Dr. Boerescu explains that passive-aggressiveness is a pattern of expressing your negative feelings in an indirect way. Passive-aggressive behaviors are forms of indirect or hidden aggression and usually triggered by resentment of authority figures, discomfort with self-assertion, or fear of negative consequences, such as rejection or punishment. Examples of such behaviors are procrastination, forgetting or deliberately doing a poor job, deceitfulness, pessimistic attitudes, mixed messages, gossip, and withholding information. To avoid conflict resolution, being direct is a much better choice.

Simple strategies to help

So how do you deal with a client or co-worker who manages to get under your skin? Michael McQuiggan, MD, site director for East Providence outpatient psychiatry, says, “There is no one thing that can solve the many interpersonal issues that arise in the workspace. However, there are some simple strategies that can be useful to help make your interactions as productive, professional and effective as possible.”

Dr. McQuiggan suggests the following three tips:

  1. Take your own emotional pulse. Pay attention to the cues that indicate you are becoming angry or frustrated. When we are frustrated, we are more likely to use a negative tone or aggressive language without realizing it. If you find yourself beginning to lose control of your emotions, take a second (or more if possible) to take a few deep breaths and calm your mind and body. This deep breathing can help to decrease your “fight or flight” response. The more emotionally stable you are, the more effective your interaction will be.
  2. Try to understand the situation from your coworker’s perspective. While this can be difficult, the more you understand where someone is coming from, the better you can help them feel heard. Sometimes, something as simple as showing empathy for someone else’s situation can be enough to diffuse a heated situation and work toward a reasonable solution. Keep in mind that sometimes people’s frustration is unrelated to the situation at hand. For example, if someone is in the middle of a heated divorce or has recently lost a loved one, they may become irritable more easily. Keeping this in mind will help you monitor your interactions and your response.
  3. Be assertive. If you think of all communication on a spectrum from passive to aggressive, people often spend too much time at the extremes. People may be passive when they want to avoid hurting the feelings of others or want to steer clear of conflict. On the other end of the spectrum, it is common for people to raise their voice or use an aggressive tone when frustrated. Generally speaking, interactions tend to be most effective when people are assertive and communicate in the middle of the spectrum. Assertiveness involves communicating in a direct, clear manner, while maintaining a calm, polite and professional tone. It’s also helpful to use non-judgmental language as much as possible to describe a situation. Focus in particular on using “I” instead of “you” as those kinds of statements tend to put people on the defensive.

Final tips

Dr. Shea says, “Overall, while it may sometimes seem that conflict is unavoidable, it can be diffused. It actually starts with you.”  She shares the following simple tips to encourage more positive interactions with coworkers:

  • Be calm.
  • Don’t argue.
  • Try to understand your coworker’s intentions, and let the other person know your intentions and where you are coming from.
  • Use “I” statements—and  be direct about what you would like to see happen.
  • Build rapport.
  • Treat co-workers with respect; be the “adult” in the room.
  • Don’t judge. Try to remember that people are doing the best they can. While that doesn’t excuse “bad” behavior, it may help you put it in perspective. For instance, consider a coworker who is going through a really difficult situation.
  • Focus on what is actionable. Move ahead and let go of the past. It can’t be changed.
  • Set appropriate boundaries if facing a difficult situation. For instance, saying “Please don’t talk to me like that,” focuses on the behavior, not the person.
  • Examine your own behavior to understand if/how you are contributing to the situation.
  • Seek out others for their perspective, but never gossip about coworkers.
  • Give yourself credit for getting through a difficult situation.
  • When all else fails you may always go to your manager/supervisor.

Navigating the workplace every day presents a myriad of possibilities for conflict. Being conscious of that and taking steps to avoid it can go a long way.

Dr. McQuiggan says, “Though we cannot control other people, we can control ourselves and how we choose to react to and engage with others. Hopefully, these simple suggestions and strategies may help you to navigate these complicated situations when they arise in the future.”

If you are experiencing conflict or need to speak with someone, our Lifespan Outpatient Psychiatry team is available. Learn more on our website.

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