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Answers to Collegial Conflicts

What can you do to address conflicts with other managers within your organization?

American Management Association hears this question often—and given today’s stressful work environment, it is understandable. So is solving the problem: it is essential to have a good working relationship with peers to get through today’s uncertain economy’s impact on workflow.

Positive collegial relationships include not only your counterparts in other departments but staff members within and outside your department and support personnel like systems managers.

Ideally, everyone in your organization is pulling in the same direction, collaborating and cooperating to achieve the company’s strategic goals. But in the real world, problems can arise from mixed messages, personality differences, and real and not-so-real (like political or turf) dilemmas.

Your first goal should be to avoid such conflicts. But should differences arise, your second objective should be to resolve the problem before it escalates and impairs your ability to work together.

The problems fall into four categories: communications, turf and territory, professionalism, and interpersonal issues. Conflicts can arise between you and another manager when messages are distorted by jammed communication channels or by a third person in your organization who distorts your comments either consciously or unconsciously. Turf battles arise over areas of responsibility, as one manager, like a gang leader, rumbles to protect the boundaries of his or her authority. When one manager treats another with little respect, then the first step is taken to undermine the positive work relationship between the two managers. Finally, differences—from gender to ethnic to personality issues—can trigger conflicts.

Different problems demand different solutions. Let’s look at some remedies and the kinds of problems they are most suited to address.

Professional courtesy. Brusque demands from a colleague can only destroy a previously positive relationship. Worse, it can seep down within staff members of different departments and destroy group camaraderie.

Establish a common ground. This bit of advice might seem manipulative, but rather than criticize your colleagues, even if justified, flatter them. Likely, there is something that justifies a compliment. Use it to smooth the waters between you and a rigid or negative or otherwise unpleasant peer and lay the groundwork for a better relationship in the future.

Watch your mouth. Don’t say anything about a co-worker that you wouldn’t want to have repeated by another.
Ask for help. You can even go so far as to admit your own shortcoming in the process. You can defuse a conflict by making the other party seem superior to you.

Mirror the other person’s movements. If you and a peer are having words, you can defuse the conflict by subtly copying the other person’s gestures, even his breathing. Rephrasing or restating the other’s words works the same way.

Make small talk work for you. Build connections with your colleagues based on personal interests, not just professional needs. Your common interests are another common ground for a more positive relationship in the future.

Use humor. Humor can be a powerful weapon for building allies, particularly when it is used to show others that you don’t take yourself too seriously. Besides, a shared laugh is comparable to a favorite song, book, movie, or Broadway show—building rapport between people.

Avoid hostility by reframing the conversation. Your colleague is short-tempered and is always ready for a fight. You can let the individual’s hostility trigger your own anger or you can paraphrase his or her remarks to prove that you were listening to the complaint, add a sympathetic comment that does not take sides, and then continue the conversation.

Confront the issue privately. If you must confront a co-worker, do so in private—not only away from your mutual staff members but other members of senior management. Raised voices have no place in the hallways of an organization or even in a management meeting. One CEO chose to bring in an outsider when she realized that three of her senior executives had territorial issues and lacked the professionalism to resolve these themselves. The new manager was hired as referee, a role the CEO didn’t have the time to assume herself.

Know where boundaries start and end. You may be above issues of turf, seeing territorial battles in your organization as petty, willing to let others operate in your turf without permission, but others may not be so open-minded. If your intrusion into another’s territory is likely to trigger a conflict, respect their boundaries and get off their turf immediately. If you need to go into another’s area of responsibility to accomplish an objective, speak to him or her first. Either ask the person to cooperate by doing the work himself or herself for you or get his or her permission to do the work even though it falls within his or her territory.