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June 2022 – Resolving the Two Top Causes of Conflict at Work

We all have “difficult people” at work who annoy us, get under our skin, and sometimes make work downright miserable. But it can be a complete shock to discover that some of our colleagues feel that way about us.

We each have a unique way of organizing our work, processing information, and communicating with others. Our natural style is something we rely on to do our best work, and it’s often a shock that despite our best intentions, someone else can be frustrated or put off by it.

This is why the most popular front-line assessments used to improve team dynamics are social styles instruments. The most popular of these is the DiSC, but there are several others as well, all plotting participants into four quadrants, and then providing tips and tools to help them appreciate their differences and work more effectively together.

In the decades I’ve spent using these assessments to help teams and individuals work through conflicts at work, I’ve noticed two patterns that consistently predict the dynamic of the conflict and point the way to how to resolve it.

Energy Levels

The “energy level” spectrum (sometimes referred to as assertiveness, or introversion versus extroversion) addresses inherent conflicts between quieter people who have a more measured approach to their work and high energy people who work fast and say exactly what’s on their mind. Whether people identify as introvert, ambivert or extrovert, the energy that shows up in the interaction is usually the key to the conflict. The table below shows how the natural strength of your energy level, whatever it is, can also trigger conflict in those who differ from you:

Energy Level Natural Strengths Negative Impact on Others
Louder /
Higher Energy
  • When you are in a good mood, your positivity is contagious.
  • You usually work quickly, which is an asset in a fast-paced environment.
  • You are good at improvising and pivoting in the moment which helps you adapt to change and solve problems in real time.
  • You are usually good at speaking your mind, so others know where you stand and hear your opinions.
  • When you are in a bad mood your negativity stresses out everyone around you.
  • You may interrupt people when trying to handle something quickly, which breaks their concentration and forces them to make a mental shift to respond to you.
  • Sometimes you have people spinning because you are making new decisions and changes they can’t keep up with.
  • You may get impatient with others and treat them with disrespect because you misinterpret their slower pace as a slower mind.
  • Sometimes you make hasty decisions that backfire, which causes other people lost time and extra work as you shift gears or do damage control.
Quieter /
Lower Energy
  • You are thoughtful and people appreciate when you share your opinion and the thinking behind it.
  • You generally take the time to gather information and input before making decisions, leading to more buy in.
  • You can usually be trusted to do work that requires care and patience, where quality and caution matter.
  • You are a good listener, and take the time to understand people and situations, which builds trust on your team.
  • You like to think before offering your opinion, and so when others are moving fast, such as in a fast paced meeting, you may not speak up before everyone has moved on to the next topic.
  • Your team may not have clarity from you about what needs to be done and by when, so they flounder and may not perform as well.
  • Often people are waiting for you to respond, make decisions, or deliver something they need to do their job well, and this can cause exasperation.
  • Sometimes people don’t trust you to drive results or meet deadlines fearing you will allow new information, or lack of consensus to slow you down.
  • In many cases you misinterpret loud and direct behavior as unethical or immoral, and you villainize people, which creates schisms that may never have a chance to be repaired.

Focus of Attention

Both tangible and intangible information are important to getting good results in our job, however we tend to have a preference on what we might label a “tasks versus people” spectrum. Some people prefer to focus on the tasks or tangible things that need to be done. They love measurable results and to-do lists and can get exasperated with the “fluffy stuff” that can’t be measured. Others are adept at reading people and can easily pick up on whether someone is bought in to a decision or how engaged team members are.

While many of us would describe ourselves as skilled at dealing with both people and tasks, we lean heavily on different types of information to assess how well we are doing. The key question a task–oriented person might ask themselves is “Did I get enough done today?” and how people responded isn’t as much on the radar. Someone who is more attentive to people might ask themselves “Are people thriving, focused and engaged today?” or “Is my boss and team happy with me today?” The information we focus on can cause conflicts, especially with people who see and value things we don’t notice. In the table below we’ll show you how some of these conflicts play out.

Tangible or Intangible Focus Strengths Negative Impact
Tangible /
Task Focused
  • You generally focus on results which lines up well with how most organizations measure success.
  • You tend to be highly productive and can clearly see what you have completed at the end of the day.
  • You are good at managing complex projects where the output of one system becomes the input of another, because you can see how all the pieces work together.
  • Sometimes people feel that you don’t get them, care about them, like them or respect them, making them less comfortable working with you or helping you. If you are a leader, you would experience this as resistance to change.
  • You may find yourself with a high turnover on your team, or leading people who seem incompetent, causing you to do a lot of the work yourself.
  • You might be drained by people issues that hinder progress and want your team to “just figure out how to get along”, while they continue to come to you with reasons why they can’t work with each other.
Intangible /
People Focused
  • You often see what others can’t when it comes to people dynamics, which allows you to resolve conflicts before they happen, get buy in, and overcome resistance to change.
  • You understand how culture and values impact behavior, and can often pinpoint issues affecting organizational performance that others miss.
  • You are good at developing people and building critical relationships within and outside of your organization.
  • Others don’t always trust you to deliver tangible results in a timely manner.
  • Your management team seems unaware or unappreciative of the time you put in working with people issues.
  • You find yourself drained with what seems like endless reporting and administrative work, often getting behind on it.
  • You’re sometimes taken aback that despite how much people seem to like you, you are not moving forward in your career as fast as others who seem less savvy.

Where you fall on the tangible / intangible spectrum is often harder to assess than the energy spectrum, and the conflicts you experience are not as obvious. They often show up as surprises and frustration in how others perceive your performance, especially when you move into a leadership position. Ignore the intangible and you will have high turnover and discord on your team preventing them from working at their highest potential. Ignore the tangible and you won’t reach your goals even though you know you’ve been doing great work.

The problem is we see the information in the world the way we’ve always seen it, and so we don’t often compute that we are missing information, even when we receive clear and direct feedback. It’s the classic not knowing what we don’t know problem. If someone gives you feedback, you may not hear what they are trying to say because it simply doesn’t make sense within the paradigm you are working from. You’ll likely continue to work hard in your same way, until you are completely jolted out of your comfort zone by more high stakes events like a shocking performance review or being passed over for a promotion.

Conflict Resolution

How do we resolve these two common types of conflicts? The first step is acknowledging your role in the conflict. Most of us can clearly see how others get in their own way, but we don’t see how we add to our own problems.

Start by paying attention to the colleagues who are the most challenging for you to work with. You’ve likely formed a lot of negative judgment about their character and their limitations, but what aren’t you seeing? If they seem withdrawn or avoidant, could your energy be overwhelming? If they seem impatient or upset with you, is it because they have been waiting on you for a response or information, or maybe something you said made them feel disrespected or devalued?

Making adjustments starts with curiosity and putting yourself in the shoes of others. It helps to be interested in people with different styles than you. Instead of focusing on how much their style annoys you, try to figure out what it feels like to be in their shoes and how their brain works. What do they notice and use in their decision making that you might be missing?

Most importantly, don’t let your ego get in the way of your curiosity. Our blind spots are usually correlated with our greatest strengths. It’s easy to get caught in a downward spiral of judging ourselves negatively because we don’t think we should have weaknesses. Unfortunately, that makes us avoid and ignore what we could be using to grow more effective.

The best way to resolve conflict is to walk right into it – a lesson it took me a lot of years to learn. Fortunately, it isn’t nearly as painful as you would expect, and the self-examination can take you to new levels of success very quickly. Avoid the excuse that you don’t have time or energy because you are too busy working hard. Hard work may be exhausting, and if you are doing it the same way you’ve always done it, it may not be moving you forward either.

If you’d like to take an assessment or discuss coaching or professional growth programs, you can contact Nahid via e-mail at nahid@coachnahid.com or call 714-931-2133.

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