I have three daughters, and I love them all! But sometimes being their dad exposes me to the oddest things. This last month the greatest oddity has been the myriad theories offered behind Taylor Swift’s song “Bad Blood.” If you ask my 21-year-old, she will scoff at the fact that you don’t know everything there is to know about pop culture and say you are too old to get it. If you ask my 12-year-old, she will give you a well-reasoned theory about the strife between Swift and Katy Perry and then shift her attention back to Instagram with its endless feed of inane images. My favorite theory is posited by Emily, my 8-year-old, who says that Perry was “mean” to Swift, stealing her backup dancers—one of whom ended up looking like a lost shark during the epic Super Bowl performance. While I have probably spent too much time investigating the underlying theory behind the latest Swift-ian earworm, my examination has prompted me to think back to the conflicts I’ve encountered over my career.
Some conflicts were memorable. Some were not.
Some focused on prickly personalities. Some focused on basic misinformation. Some involved appropriate conflict resolution, and some offered examples of what not to do. All of these experiences have led to a menagerie of mayhem worth cataloguing for those seeking ways to manage conflict effectively. With that in mind, I present my top three conflict stories and how they were handled by HR professionals with maximum effectiveness:
The Great Citation Debate of 2008—It was summer and I was working with two researchers who had very distinct points of view on coordination between team members. Fundamentally speaking, they disagreed about the true definition of teamwork. One researcher argued that teamwork doesn’t really exist because it is a function of properly timed individual performances. The other argued that teamwork did exist because it is the function of several interdependent processes leading to a collective output.
During a meeting one day, Researcher A yelled at Researcher B because he had the wrong year of publication for a citation about teamwork. The disagreement resulted in several uncomfortable barbs about psychologists versus physicians and a lengthy remediation program with HR. Luckily, the seasoned HR professional at this organization understood that this was conflict attributable to misinformation or information perceived differently. She helped them develop a shared understanding of the problem and drove out the conflict.
The Nurse, The Surgeon and The Shoe—In a previous life I coached nurses and physicians on the value of teamwork and, boy, did I collect some great stories. I can’t share them all but buy me a beer and who knows. My favorite story, though, is the one about the prickly personality of a surgeon at a county hospital center. Dr. Cactus turned out to be a difficult person who demanded complete attention from everyone during medical rounds.
One time Charge Nurse No Nonsense decided she had something more important to do so he threw his orange Croc on her desk for not paying attention. Dr. Cactus made no bones about her insubordination and threw a tantrum, calling for her immediate removal from their prestigious institution. This resulted in a one-sided monologue about the virtues of everything Dr. Cactus has to say delivered in his loudest Frankie Valli voice during lunch at the hospital’s cafeteria. One well-aimed pudding packet later and both Dr. Cactus and Nurse No Nonsense were receiving disciplinary mandates from HR with guidance for resolving their disagreement. Luckily, the competent HR professional at this organization noted that this issue was derived from unresolved personality conflict between Dr. Cactus and everyone else. Six months of coaching for Dr. Cactus healed all his warts and made him approachable once again.
The Car Ride Straight out of “Dynasty”—In the D.C. area, it is common to engage in ride-sharing to meet car-pool lanes’ high-occupancy-vehicle requirements. In fact, we have a name for riders who line up every morning and night waiting for a driver who happens to be going their way. We call them “slugs,” and they wait in “slug lines.” One summer I was a slug waiting for a ride and praying for a quiet and speedy commute from the Pentagon to my destination further south. As luck would have it, my ride, although stylish in an Audi A8, was anything but quiet and uneventful. The driver and the other passenger were work colleagues and friends: two lovely ladies both seeking Mr. Right to complete their love lives.
As they traded stories about the new guys in their respective lives, they came to a realization—they were dating the same man. Minutes 15 through 24 of this car ride were a veritable hornet’s nest with each yelling at the other with such hilarious barbs I couldn’t help but snicker as I pretended to nap. Suddenly, we pulled over and the ladies quit the sniping. The passenger said, “We shouldn’t be mad at each other. HE IS THE PROBLEM!” Before you knew it, this team had a plan for taking him down and identified who in HR would help them resolve the issue. Now, I can’t say with certainty how it all turned out, but I can say that their phone call to the HR professional yielded clear guidance about how they should communicate in the future and what was the best course of action for resolving a workplace conflict before it ever happened. Luckily, this competent HR professional saw the potential for huge relationship conflict leading to detrimental outcomes and stepped right in to prevent it.
Each of these examples points to a different source of conflict. Whether you encounter relationship, task, personality, or straight-up, crazy-nuclear conflict, knowing the source of the conflict is half the battle. Knowing the source helps you bring the right kind of remedy so you don’t end up fixing bullet holes with Band-Aids.
How do you handle conflict in the workplace? How do you handle conflict among co-workers? How do you avoid conflict before it ever happens? What great conflicts have you encountered?
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