CPA INSIDER

How to handle office conflict

Use these tips to make peace at work.
By Dawn Wotapka

No one likes to deal with conflict, especially when it happens with people you work with day after day.

But disagreements at work are common. Most people spend their week working with colleagues who have different ways of thinking and communicating. While having many different personalities on one team can often be a benefit, it can also fuel conflict, putting employees and their managers in awkward positions.

Here are tips for keeping things professional even amid friction:

Try to coexist. If you sense tension forming with a colleague, try getting to know him or her better so you can understand each other, suggested Kathy Taberner, co-founder of the Institute of Curiosity. If you initiate the conversation and ask open-ended questions to better understand the other party's perspective, "the other person will sooner or later start asking questions of you. Both people will feel seen, heard, or understood," she said.

Maybe you won't ever become friends, but you can learn to be civil, said Andy Thiede, a consultant with human resources consulting firm KardasLarson based in Glastonbury, Conn. If you dislike a co-worker's personality, try to keep that under wraps, she said, and instead "focus on the work that needs to be done."

Reflect on your role. If a conflict occurs, think about whether you may have contributed to the problem, Taberner said. Be accountable to yourself for your actions, and acknowledge any mistakes you may have made. "We all play a role in any situation, even the dance of conflict," she said.

Taking ownership of your mistakes will go a long way. "Personal responsibility is at the core of respecting others," said David G. Barbeito, CPA, managing partner of the De La Hoz, Perez & Barbeito accounting firm in Coral Gables, Fla.

Approach and address. If you're not solely responsible, approach the other person for a one-on-one conversation that others can't overhear, suggested Michael Silvio, CPA, director of tax services with Hall & Company CPAs and Consultants in Irvine, Calif. The goal is to soothe and resolve any issues.

When you approach a colleague, do not be accusatory, and use calm and rational speech, Thiede advised. The best approach is to be understanding and respectful.

Open the conversation with nonconfrontational language, such as "I sense you might be having an issue …" or "Is there something I've done?", Silvio said. ("If you come to a person with guns blazing, they're going to defend themselves," he pointed out.) Starting out gently usually causes the other person to let down his or her guard and open up about the issue, he said.

Escalate. If you can't talk your way to a solution, consider approaching a manager. Silvio said he has an open-door policy so that colleagues feel comfortable coming to him with issues. "They can be open and honest" about why a situation isn't working, he said.

When Silvio is asked to help resolve a conflict between workers he manages, he talks to each individual alone to get his or her take on the situation. "I want to get both sides of the story," he explained. He then gets those involved together to discuss the problem and what they think a possible remedy could be. Most of the time, this resolves the issue, he said.

Taberner finds a private area, such as a closed office, where all parties can communicate. She has one person tell his or her story. The other person listens and then paraphrases what is heard to ensure that the speaker feels listened to and understood. This can clear up miscommunication and misunderstandings, both of which contribute to conflict.

"The goal is to find common ground on which both parties can agree to move forward," she said.

Change the environment. If discussing the issue doesn't work, it may be necessary to ask your bosses to shift with whom you work or to whom you directly report. While this may not always be possible, it may not hurt to ask. After all, good bosses should realize that not everyone was meant to work together, Silvio said. "Sometimes personalities don't match, and you shouldn't be afraid of fixing what seems like a broken situation," he said.

Go to HR. Finally, there may be times when you may have to involve human resources. "When things get tough, you have to have a seasoned HR professional who has experience dealing with these situations," Silvio said.

Barbeito said that HR should become involved when personal insults arise or if someone doesn't feel safe.

Managers can help prevent conflict in the first place by embracing a supportive and collegial culture where people trust each other enough to have frank conversations, even ones that may involve disagreements, Silvio said. "Conflict arises in the office environment when you feel like someone doesn't trust you or you feel like they don't have your best interest in mind," he said.

Respecting others is key, even when things get rocky, Barbeito noted. "We may not always agree, but we can always respect each other," he said.

Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in Georgia. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, associate director–Content Development, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.

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