Personality clashes: 5 techniques for dealing with conflict at work

What happens when you love your job, but find your colleagues difficult? Here we present five ways to reframe your working relationships, ramping up your happiness and productivity levels as a result. Hazard a guess at the number one cause of conflict in the workplace. Share price fluctuations? Economic turbulence? Overwork? Tiredness or stress? According to a Psychometrics study on turbulence in Canada’s corporate world, the leading cause of workplace conflict – responsible for nearly 90% of office spats – is a good old-fashioned personality clash. Furthermore, the report found that 81% of office workers have known someone to leave an organisation over a personality clash, while 77% have seen it lead to sickness or absenteeism. A report by CPP (publisher of the Myers Briggs personality test) concludes that in the US alone, $359 billion in paid hours are spent dealing with personality clashes. Unless you’re exceptionally lucky, a personality clash isn’t a case of ‘if’, but ‘when’.  So even if your current working environment is a masterclass in joyous harmony, having a few conflict-resolution techniques up your sleeve will mean you’re prepared for the consequences of a character fallout – plummeting productivity, rocketing stress levels, and maybe even disruption of an entire team.  

1. See conflict as an opportunity to grow as a future leader

“Human behaviour is far too fickle for ideal worlds,” says employment law advisor, Liz Symon. Leaders have learned through experience you can’t get on with everyone. Rid yourself of the mindset, and you might find that minor irritants become easier to overlook. When minor irritants begin to affect productivity or team morale, an executive enters conflict resolution mode – something an Academy Leadership report estimates that leaders spend up to 50% of their time in. If leadership is your career goal, then dealing with a personality clash head-on – you own, or that of individuals on your team – will give you pretty good insight into life at the top.  

2. Look for the root cause

“Understanding the root cause of any personality clash can be the first step towards resolving it,” say UK arbitration experts Acas. “Many different factors can underpin such clashes – for example, differences in how two employees approach certain tasks, particularly if one depends on the other in their work role. Gender and background differences can also cause friction, as can differing approaches to leadership, appraisal and team management.” Personality clashes can become so fraught with emotion that untangling the issue back to its root cause can feel like hunting the proverbial needle in a haystack. Give yourself some distance from the situation and coolly approach the task as you would a brainstorm session. A good technique for this purpose is ‘the five whys’. Question the ‘why?’ of a personality clash a minimum of five times until you can isolate as keenly as possible the root cause of the issue. But don’t stop there. Ask why that behaviour is so irksome to you specifically. Let’s say your final ‘why?’ leads you to realise the issue stems from the other person’s tendency to talk over you in meetings. Were you talked over a lot as a child? Are the interruptions getting in the way of feeling heard by senior figures? Are you simply someone who places a lot of value on manners? This knowledge enables a more effective strategy for dealing with the issue. In this case for example, it might be learning the art of interruption for yourself, or how to speak up in such a way that stops others talking over you. Discover more in our workbook Powerful Workplace Communication.  

3. Turn detective

Sometimes personality clashes stem not from an irksome trait but from a lack of connection or common ground. You’ve probably worked with someone at some point who you simply don’t ‘get’, who just isn’t your ‘type of person’. Though common, such scenarios can lead to misunderstanding, and lack of rapport to project failure. In our workbook Managing Upward With Success we advise creating a study of your boss in order to figure out how to tick his of her boxes. The same exercise can give you a good insight into your troublesome colleague. Observe their behaviour in meetings, look for what tasks seem to energise them and which stress them out. Are their strengths and weaknesses clear to you? What are their values? How do they respond differently to different character types and vice versa? A word of caution: when conducting this exercise, ensure you do so as objectively as possible. Don’t anticipate responses or behaviours; listen without prejudice or preconceived notions. Your ideal challenge point, says Sara Parsons in the everywomanNetwork webinar Make sure you know what problem you’re trying to solve, should be between the polar opposites of ‘mean spirited attacks’ and ‘artificial harmony’. Turn this around onto yourself too: ask which of your own characteristics might jar with the other person; an unbiased examination of your own role in the conflict might be uncomfortable, but can help you move beyond it.  

4. What’s in it for me? What’s in it for them?

The law of reciprocity says that if you enable another, they’re more likely to extend the same courtesy to you. Let’s take a scenario in which Sue and Raj are clashing. Sue – a methodical planner – has asked herself dozens of ‘whys’ and established that Raj’s tendency to leave everything to the last minute is behind her frustration. An objective outsider might conclude that Sue’s planning skills combined with Raj’s ability to fight fire under pressure make for a pretty solid team. On this principle, Sue attempts a reciprocal exchange. She will meticulously lay out a series of deadlines and plan resources accordingly, and in exchange Raj gets a solid framework within which he has the freedom to work as he wishes. If your own conflict’s potential for a reciprocal exchange isn’t quite as clear cut, you may need to ask some direct opening questions. “I notice we have very different styles of doing things sometimes: What is it you need from me?” Find a template for enabling the law of reciprocity in the everywoman workbook Managing Upward With Success.  

5. Mind your buts

There is a word in the English language that tends, says Liane Davey, author of You First: Inspire Your Team To Grow Up, Get Along, And Get Stuff Done, to pop up more frequently than others when we’re at loggerheads: ‘but’. In her Harvard Business Review report Conflict Strategies For Nice People, she suggests swapping out ‘but’, wherever possible, for ‘and’. Consider the difference between the dialogues on the left and right:
Person 1: We need to simplify our customer service script; it’s way too confusing. Person 2: But there are some complicated messages that we need to get across. Person 1: We need to simplify our customer service script; it’s way too confusing. Person 2: And we need to work out how we can still get across some of the more complicated detail in a way that makes sense
            In the scenario on the right, the parties aren’t necessarily in total agreement, but there is a sense of being able to move forward together.- – – Active listening is the key at the heart of all of these techniques. Only through truly opening your ears can you figure out what’s really going on, who somebody else really is, and what it is they want.