Career SkillsLessons on Leadership

Dealing with Terrible Coworkers? Here’s Why Conflict Might Actually be the Solution

By Jacquelyn Adams

Are you tired of dealing with difficult people in the workplace? Good news! You’re not alone. Misery loves company, am I right? According to a ResumeLab study, 80% of people say they have at least one “terrible” coworker. However, according to Amy GalloSHRM conference keynote speaker and best-selling author of Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People), conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, healthy conflict can lead to better work outcomes, opportunities for growth and learning, improved relationships, job satisfaction, creative friction, and an inclusive work environment. Not buying it? Well, according to Gallo, it is all about how we manage that conflict. We choose whether it festers into a toxic workplace, or if it is a tool to deepen bonds and understanding. To this end, Gallo recently shared some of her insights in her keynote presentation at the SHRM Talent conference, and here are a few takeaways to help make your workplace angst go away.

Avoid artificial harmony

In her talk, Gallo emphasized that there is no such thing as a conflict-free team. Sometimes people avoid conflict and create “artificial harmony” (a term borrowed from Patrick Lencioni, author of “The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable”), which may seem fine on the surface, but can lead to underlying frustrations and stifle opportunities to create better work outcomes and improved relationships. Smiles are pasted on and problems are swept under the rug. These can also be hotbeds for toxic positivity in the workplace. The end result is ticking time bombs, burnout and high turnover. Nothing truly good comes from artificial harmony.

Work to understand the other person

Gallo acknowledges that dealing with difficult coworkers can be challenging. Still, she suggests identifying archetypes, such as insecure bosses, pessimists, victims, passive-aggressive peers, know-it-alls, tormentors, biased coworkers, and political operators to help understand their behavior. However, these archetypes are only as helpful as our application of them. If we simply use them as dismissive labels to make ourselves feel better, they are useless and don’t help us solve any problems. However, Gallo recommends we use them as a starting point from which we ask what their behavior is, what might explain it, what role I may be playing, and what tactics I can try. Asking these questions gives us an opportunity to practice tactical empathy.

Identify this specific issue

First, as much as possible, let’s try not to bring in old baggage to this new conflict with the “terrible” coworker. We are working to understand and have a more effective relationship, so that we can be aware of old trends and habits, but we do not have the “I told you so” or “this is what you always do” card in our back pocket.

Looking at the current issue with our coworker, Gallo says there are four types of conflict — task, process (you agree on the goal, but you disagree on how to achieve it), status, and relationship. While the task is the most common source of conflict, we often see multiple types of conflict revolving around one issue. For example, we could have a task issue that becomes a status issue when both parties attempt to be in charge, and then a relationship issue when one or both communicate disrespectfully. By understanding the different layers of conflict lurking around the current issue, we can engage more purposefully.

Figure out what you can do

To improve your relationships with difficult coworkers, Gallo recommends focusing on what you can control, being aware of your biases, experimenting to find what works, avoiding making it “me vs. them,” and practicing interpersonal resilience. This means feeling less stressed while interacting with that person, less stressed afterward, and more confident knowing you can handle the interaction and the relationship. Before having a conversation with someone with whom you’re experiencing conflict, it’s essential to take some steps to prepare:

  • Understand the other person/people: The amygdala hijack can make us highly narcissistic and lead us to tell ourselves stories that don’t help. Try to be empathetic and think about what might be on the other person’s mind.
  • Know what you disagree about: Sometimes something deeper is happening, but conflicts usually fall into four types: task, process, status, and relationship.
  • Determine your goal: If your goal is to prove you’re right and the other person is wrong, find another goal.
  • Decide how to proceed: Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing, while other times you might want to let it go once and see if a pattern emerges. Recognize your different options to determine the best way to move forward in the current circumstances.

We can strive to build stronger, more productive relationships with our colleagues with some effort, empathy, and a little bit of humor. I’m not saying it will be easy. We are humans, and humans, by nature, are hot messes. The steps we take today shape our tomorrow, and I would love to have a tomorrow in which there are no terrible coworkers, just coworkers I sometimes conflict with in healthy ways.


Jacquelyn Adams

Jacquelyn Adams, founder and CEO of Ristole, uses her column to delve into the wild world of leadership. Whether the article is about her days as a Peace Corp volunteer, exploring corporate training, or even grabbing lunch at Chipotle — she will come out with a story and her “top tips.” As she passionately believes in leveraging her platform to share others’ voices, her column welcomes guest bloggers to create a fuller and more diverse pool of experiences for her readership. So, welcome to “Lessons on Leadership” where you never know what the next article will hold: online networking advice, guidelines for creating a joyful workplace, or even puppies. Just keep reading to discover what’s next!

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