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How to Handle Workplace Conflict: One Simple Suggestion

4554960223_e5a0fc71fa_nI don’t know how to break this to you gently, dear reader: academia is not a gingerbread house on candy cane lane with unicorns parked in the driveway. Sometimes, when conflicts arise between colleagues, things get said (or written) that should probably be left unexpressed. Or to put it another way, concerns and objections are not always communicated in the most appropriate way.

I think we’ve all been there, to some extent, either as the aggrieved party sending an ill-advised email — for example — or as the party on the receiving end of said email. Billie has published a number of thoughtful posts about disruptive situations in the workplace and has invited readers to share their own thoughts and advice about such situations.

Recently, I was reminded of a story that a friend of mine told me about how she responded to a completely inappropriate message sent to her (and cc:’ed to others, including her boss) by an author who was being extremely difficult to work with. The email was over-the-top in its catalog of complaints about minor things, personal attacks on her integrity, and threats about the future direction the project might take.

Instead of responding to the substance of the email, my friend simply wrote back the following (cc:’ing everyone who had received the author’s screed):

I would appreciate professionalism, please. Thank you.

The result? Well… nothing at first. But eventually she received an apologetic message and the project continued (albeit not in a completely friction-free way).

What I like about this response is three-fold:

  1. She was refusing to let the level of conversation go in the direction it was headed. It’s easy to let our first impulse be the one we follow: “How dare you write to me like that!” or “Well, if you’d get your material submitted on time, this wouldn’t be a problem!”
  2. She was signaling her own commitment to keeping their interactions professional rather than personal. And she did so in a way that was itself professional.
  3. And finally — in my opinion — this response allowed the author to save face. She didn’t go to others to complain or badmouth the author in a backchannel conversation, and she didn’t write him back to tell him that he was acting like an ass. Instead, she sent a simple reminder of the environment of their interactions and a polite but firm request for him to change his behavior to one more appropriate to that environment.

Now, it’s important to acknowledge that calls for “professionalism” or “civility” can (and have) been used to silence the voices of people who have historically been marginalized in the workplace. One only has to think of references to “that hysterical woman” or “the angry black man” to be reminded of this. However, I do think it’s possible to respect (and listen to) the concerns of someone who disagrees with me while at the same time refusing to let someone else communicate with me in a way that I find threatening or upsetting.

Candy Cane lane may be an imaginary neighborhood, but that fact shouldn’t prevent us from aspiring to a workplace ethic characterized by kindness and professionalism.

How about you? What are your strategies for handling workplace conflict? Please share in the comments.

[Creative Commons-licensed flickr photo by William Murphy]

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