Conflict in any social environment is inevitable. Whether it occurs within a family, between friends, over sporting events or in the workplace, disagreements and the resulting tension are simply part of who we are and how we function socially. In a conventional social or workplace setting, where personnel are co-located and able to discuss their differences, or are even forced to do so by proximity, conflicts will generally be resolved quickly and with the minimum of ongoing tension.
However, once individuals are separated, particularly in situations such as we are currently navigating, with personnel sequestered in their homes, with minimal social contact outside of their immediate family, with the background tensions of health concerns and long term employment viability, the smallest tension, misstep or disagreement can quickly escalate into major a falling out.
Conflict in work from home situations
As organisations are increasingly moving from co-located to work from home situations in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, staff are suddenly finding themselves in unusual and challenging situations. They are physically isolated from their social groups, closed away in whatever room in their home they have been able to convert into a home office, potentially finding themselves working alongside partners, with children home from school and supporting relatives. All of these additional tensions will build up in their minds, leading to internal stress that will make them highly susceptible to mental triggers that otherwise would have not registered.
“In virtual team environments, perception really is reality”
A glib comment on a phone call, a poorly expressed email or even the absence of a message can all suddenly take on a much greater perceived meaning in the mind, and in a situation where perception is frequently reality, these little events result in sudden conflict between co-workers. Sadly the triggers for these things are the part that is hardest to control. As individuals it is not within our power to control the things that can trigger our reactions, it is, though, completely in our power to control two other things.
- We can control how we react to things that may trigger conflict
- We can also control how we behave relative to others where our actions may initiate conflict with them.
Reacting to triggers
In the second part of this series of pieces I discussed the need to assume no wrong on the part of your colleagues when they are communicating with you. To enter into every discussion, whatever the topic and whatever the medium, with the belief that they intend what they are saying and how they are expressing it in an innocent and non confrontational manner.
This “assume no wrong” stance is hard to maintain when you are under stress from many different directions, but it is essential to maintain a relatively conflict free working environment. If, on a call of any kind, someone says something that you disagree with or that feels like it is directed at something you have done, try not to react in a negative manner, ask for clarification rather than attacking, or pause before responding. Even a short pause can deescalate the need to react in your mind and asking for clarification will generally result in a much clearer picture of the intent from the other party.
If the potential conflict comes from written correspondence, you have much more latitude over how and when you respond. Your gut reaction may be react immediately with a response that will escalate whatever you believed was being said and turn an innocent comment into a full conflict. It is far better to leave the message for a while, hours or even days, and revisit it once you have had the opportunity to think on it or possibly even discuss it with someone impartial. If you do then feel you need to respond, do so in a factual and balanced way rather than an aggressive manner. Again, there is every chance that the message was intended innocently so a strong response may be completely counterproductive.
Try not to be the trigger for others
The other side of the coin in all of this conflict discussion is of course how our behavior may initiate conflict with others. In just the same way as someone else may cause you to react, your actions or words, written or spoken, can cause similar responses in others. In this context then your behavior is, of course, in your own hands (and mind). When you are writing emails or notes, try to see your words through the eyes and reactions of others. If a written email is potentially contentious, perhaps get a trusted colleague to review it before you send it to get that cold eye review.
If you really do have something to address with an individual, then raise it directly with them, and ideally verbally by phone as a minimum, by video is better, and if it can be left until you are able to meet face to face that would be ideal. Discussing and resolving issues face to face is almost always the best approach but with the ongoing and possibly drawn our isolation situation, it may mean that some things need to be addressed before all of that passes, and if you believe something will need the participating of a third party such as human resources, then this is also possible by video conference, though again not ideal.
As a closing comment, the ideal situation would be that everyone is able to recognise the unusual and challenging situation we are all facing together and adjust their behavior and expectations accordingly at all times. However, none of us know what others are experiencing and even the simplest and most benign request, if received at a point of high stress by the intended responder, can result in seemingly disproportionate reactions. We will all potentially face personal challenges during these next few weeks that will leave us tired and frustrated and likely to lash out at anything that gets in our path.
So, try to be patient, allow some space for things to settle, be kind to your colleagues and endeavour to minimize the conflict if possible.