How to handle a difficult colleague

by | Oct 17, 2013 | News

Nicky Little from Cirrus writes for The Guardian

Most of us have worked with colleagues who we find difficult. Some of us may even have been described as difficult by others.

Research shows that when it comes to workplace conflict, women are subject to negative stereotyping. A 2013 study from the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business asked participants to assess one of three workplace conflict scenarios, all identical except for the names of the individuals involved: Adam and Steven, Adam and Sarah, or Sarah and Anna.

Which one was perceived in the most negative way? You guessed it: Sarah and Anna. This kind of perceived bias can have an impact on how you behave at work.

Meta-analysis of research into conflict styles indicates that men tend more towards competing in order to resolve a difficult situation, while women will tend more towards compromise. And compromise is great – as long as it involves genuine co-operation.

What is not so great is conflict avoidance. Steering clear of disagreements and leaving things unsaid creates unnecessary complexity and needless anxiety. And while this is not an exclusively female trait, conflict avoidance is an issue for many women.

The late Mo Mowlem MP famously handled many conflicts during her political life. Her pivotal role in the Northern Irish peace process, involving many complex negotiations, was widely praised. Her negotiation style was noted for being very different to many of the (mostly male) people around her.

Mowlem was regarded direct, personal and genuine in a world renowned for tactics and game playing. This helped her to influence others.

If you’re faced with a colleague you find difficult, take some time out to reflect on the situation. Aim to be calm and objective. Think about what the ideal outcome would be for you. What would you like to accomplish from a conversation with your colleague? Is the purpose actually a useful and supportive one? Be dispassionate and carefully consider what you want to achieve.

When it comes to actually dealing with the situation, think of you and your colleague as equals, and don’t be afraid to assert yourself. This can lead to positive results. Ask trusted friends and colleagues how they perceive your readiness to engage in constructive conflict. They might see patterns that are not obvious to you.

Don’t criticise or blame, and avoid judgemental language. Try to offer constructive suggestions for improvement.Point out what you both agree on at the beginning of the conversation. This may be a shared goal or values.

Things between you and your colleague may not change overnight but it’s worth persevering. No matter how well the conversation begins, you’ll need to stay in charge of your purpose and your emotions. Think about how Mo Mowlem remained true to herself and carried on even when her negotiations seemed hopeless.

Put the difficult conversation in perspective by thinking about the future. The things that seem hardest right now will appear less daunting.

Click here to read Nicky’s article on The Guardian website.

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