Culture

Why fighting at work can be healthy and how to go about it

Confront early, confront often — and other best practices.

Confront early, confront often — and other best practices

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The people you work with will eventually tick you off. Bosses give orders that make your job harder, co-workers talk too loudly on the phone, subordinates are insubordinate. Sometimes people just disagree with you.

The most common response to workplace annoyance is to ingest it and metabolize it into insomnia or neck pain. Refusing to acknowledge that we're bothered indulges our natural aversion to conflict and honours the cheek-turning ethos of workplace harmony. Passive aggression is also popular. Many prefer reveal obliquely that they're unhappy but refuse to say why. Ambiguous comments, condescending looks, and behind-the-back chat stock a simmering pot of workplace rancour. But neither approach solves the problem.

A growing number of business experts have been arguing that open confrontation, rather than passive silence, is the best way to change the behaviour of others, to keep a team productive, and to improve relationships between colleagues. As Walter Lippmann wrote in The Stakes of Diplomacy, "Where all think alike, no one thinks very much."

There's actually plenty to gain from confronting others in a healthy and appropriate manner, but many avoid it. Here are some tips on how to do it right.

Tame your fear

Many imagine that voicing disagreement, especially with a superior, will draw dire consequences. "I'll be fired"; "Everyone will think I'm a jerk"; "The person I confront will hate me forever" and so on. According to workplace dynamics expert Amy Gallo of the Harvard Business Review, most people overestimate these risks, sometimes even exaggerating the consequences of confrontation simply as an excuse to avoid a socially awkward situation. Gallo recommends considering the consequences of not speaking up in some situations instead. If you don't say something, your co-worker might keep sharing his "hilarious" Jackie Chan impression with you at every opportunity. Is that what you really want?

Pick the right fight

While conflict can be useful and productive, don't jump at every opportunity. Some of the most tempting opportunities for confrontation will be those that give you a chance to show up an enemy or rival, to look smart, or to settle old scores. If you're going to bother getting into a conflict, you might as well get something out of it. According to Saj-Nicole Joni and Damon Bayer, authors of The Right Fight, you should be picky when picking fights, and engage only in fights that have the potential to be one that "creates lasting value, leads to a noticeable and sustainable improvement, and addresses a complex challenge that has no easy answers." To do so, they recommend focussing on the future and avoiding fighting over apportioning blame for past events.

Prepare

It isn't always easy to think spontaneously in the middle of confrontation. Amy Gallo recommends doing a little prep work before speaking up. Consider how important is the problem to you and your organization, and envision a solution that you can propose. Then, speak to friends or colleagues that you trust. This is important both because it helps you to gather more than one perspective on the issue and allows you to gather allies to back up your point of view should you need it.

Confront early, confront often

Confrontation is easy to postpone. People hate to do it, feel guilty about it, and think it makes them look bad. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, organizational psychologist Mike Woodward said "Time doesn't heal all wounds, it only makes them harder to repair." Postponing a confrontation raises the stakes of the conflict. Suppose a colleague regularly interrupts your work to stand in your doorway and chat casually. If you explain that you prefer not to be interrupted the first or second time, there's a better chance that won't be offended. If you only tell them the twentieth time they do it, they'll feel the resentment you've stored up from the last nineteen, dramatically raising the stakes of the confrontation.

Don't "lose the peace"

It's quite possible to "win" the initial confrontation by showing that the person was wrong, but to make your life worse by creating or hardening enmity. According to Kathleen McAuliffe at Career Contessa, your approach to a conflict can make the difference between "healthy disagreement and soul-crushing drama." McAuliffe recommends giving yourself enough time to cool down so you can remain in control during the confrontation. When your colleague presents their position, try to understand it rather than just listening for where they get it wrong. Instead of making generalizations or assumptions about your colleague focus on specific concrete examples. In the end, you are looking for a compromise that everyone can live with, not to humiliate your opponent.


Clifton Mark is a former academic with more interests than make sense in academia. He writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and pastimes. If it matters to you, his PhD is in political theory. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.

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