By: Annie McKee
Courtesy of Harvard Business Review
Disagreements and debate at work are healthy. Fighting is not. That’s because fighting with one’s boss is just as confusing and destructive as fighting with a powerful family member. Fighting with a colleague feels like fighting with a friend or a sibling. Fighting with people who have more or less power than we do feels like bullying.
Naturally, we have to learn to deal with aggression at work. But first, we need to understand the real sources of conflict—not the textbook “struggle over resources” issues—but the underlying psychological reasons why people fight. Then, we can develop ways to engage in conflict that keep us sane, help others, and hopefully support the organization.
What does conflict at work look like?
Conflict at work comes in several forms. First, there are the people who pretend there’s no problem when there’s an obvious problem. They may say something like: “I don’t see an issue here.” When you try to explain, you’re hit with: “You’re being illogical.” When things escalate, this becomes the ultimate insult: “You’re too emotional.” (Women, beware.) Turning the conflict around so it’s about you is a tactic—a crazy-making tactic. No matter what you do, you’re seen as unreasonable or you’re labeled as the one picking a fight. In this scenario, they win and you lose.
Another common approach to conflict at work is outright aggression. People who habitually choose this approach are bullies. They are the hyper-competitive, anything-goes, take-no-prisoners, narcissists among us. These people prove their worth by dominating. They’re especially dangerous because they often have vicious followers who do their bidding. When these bullies get mad, watch out.
Then there’s my least favorite tactic of all—passive aggressiveness. Passive aggressive people seem to be supportive, logical, and even helpful—until you read between the lines. Their attacks don’t seem like attacks because they are so good at hiding their word-weapons. Sometimes, you don’t even know you’ve been hit until later. Fighting with these people is like shadow boxing.
Why do people fight at work?
Disagreements and even true conflict are inevitable at work, for some pretty good reasons: the constant flood of information means that we are always touching different parts of the elephant and constant change requires constant debate. In a perfect world, we follow the textbook advice, treat these sources of conflict logically, behave like adults, and get on with it.
The problem is, we’re not working in a perfect world, and none of us is perfect. We each bring our own baggage to work each day. And, some of our issues rear their heads again and again. At the top of my list of sources of work conflict are: personal insecurity, the desire for power and control, and habitual victimhood. Let’s take these each in turn.
Insecurity. We are all insecure about something. And when insecurity gets triggered, we can find ourselves behaving in ways that don’t make us proud. We try to hide our mistakes, avoid healthy debate, shy away from disagreements and even lash out unnecessarily, just to protect ourselves. Sometimes we even start fights just to distract people.
Nobody’s perfect. So why spend so much time and energy trying to prove that we are? Wouldn’t it be better to just work with our shortcomings, rather than create complicated work-arounds that confuse people and inevitably cause conflict?
Desire for power. Most people want to feel that they have some control over their lives and actions—at work as well as at home. We want to have impact. We want to help people achieve goals, and we want the recognition we deserve. This is natural and healthy: proactively looking for ways to influence and impact people for the sake of the group is the epitome of good leadership. Unfortunately, many people are at the mercy of this very human need. Instead of working withothers, the goal becomes to position ourselves above others. When it’s pathological, shared goals don’t really matter anymore, and shared credit isn’t an option. This stance, however well hidden, puts everyone on high alert and on the defensive. This is because we know that even normal disagreements about things like resources are actually primal struggles about who has power over whom.
Habitual victimhood. Insecurity can be a good thing—it can mean that we are in touch with our shortcomings and that we are ready to learn. And many people use their power well, for the good of the group. Habitual victimhood, however, has no redeeming value whatsoever. Still, it is all too common to find perpetrator-victim pairs in organizations. The script is so predictable: “He does thus-and-so all the time and I can’t do anything about it.” Really? You can’t do anything about being metaphorically kicked to the ground over and over again? Why do people put themselves in this position? It’s deep, for sure, and quite honestly if you find yourself the victim over and over, it wouldn’t hurt to talk with a good therapist. Or at least a good friend. You need to figure out how being a victim serves you. For example, giving up control means that we have a ready-made excuse and can’t be held accountable.
What can you do about conflict at work?
The first thing we can do is to admit that conflict at work is real and pervasive, and just as painful as fights and struggles in other areas of life. Let’s stop pretending that somehow it is more rational, more sterile than conflict elsewhere in our lives.
Second, we need to cultivate real empathy and compassion for others. What drives them? What are they insecure about? How would it feel to be them? This kind of reflection isn’t easy, and it is tempting to let your biases and stereotypes guide your conclusions.
Finally: Our feelings matter, and they need to be attended to first and always, not as an afterthought. So, dealing with conflict at work starts with self-awareness. What are you insecure about? Why? Is it rational, or are those old tapes from childhood still there, playing long after they stopped being true or useful? How do you feel about power—yours and others’? What happens when your freedom is threatened, or when someone tries to control you? And…do you make yourself a victim? Why? How does this serve you? Where else in your life do you do this? Is it really working?
This kind of self-awareness isn’t superficial—it’s deep. And it will help. Not just you, but your colleagues and your organization, too.