Bring to mind a conflict at work, and you’ll probably have the perpetrator in mind: your incompetent boss, that passive-aggressive colleague, or the resource-hoarding peer in another department. We spend an inordinate amount of time complaining about these people, avoiding them, and fighting with them. But if you want to manage conflict in the workplace, you can’t start with someone else. Usually there isn’t just one culprit, and if you want less fighting and a more enjoyable, productive workplace, you have to understand your own role in it and what you can do to break a vicious cycle that starts with frustration and stress and ends with workplace wars.
Constant challenges breed frustration. A healthy dose of frustration can be good, leading to determination and creativity. Unfortunately, instead of the occasional obstacle at work, we are often buried in an avalanche of problems. We don’t have the resources we need to do our job, and the goalposts keep moving. We blame the relentless, do-more-with-less nature of our shortsighted, quarterly-results-driven business climate for our frustration, or we pin responsibility on unending change or corporate culture. Whatever the reason, many of us are chronically frustrated at work.
Toxic emotions are stressful. Chronic frustration often morphs into fear and anger — “destructive emotions” that serve as an early warning system that we’re in danger. When the alarm rings, our bodies go into high alert, adrenaline and hormones course through our veins, muscles tighten so that we can move quickly, hands sweat, and breathing and heart rates speed up. This would all be well and good if it happened infrequently and saved us from actual danger. Unfortunately, frustration, low-grade fear, irritation, and even rage are familiar companions at work. Many of us are hyperalert all the time. We don’t thrive physically, we are disengaged and unhappy at work, and our brains don’t work properly.
Stress feeds conflict — and conflict breeds anger, resentment, and unhappiness.It’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking that stress isn’t all bad. In fact, when we’re under pressure, we may perform well on routine, well-rehearsed tasks. But when we’re under chronic stress, our complex thinking, reasoning, and social skills all suffer. Our ability to process and use information is compromised, as is our judgment. We have more difficulty with being flexible or open to new ideas, and we start seeing things in simplistic ways. We overreact to minor irritants, and everything and everyone starts looking like a threat. In this state, we are more likely to cause problems than solve them — especially in relationships.
This is when the vicious cycle becomes an endless loop. We don’t think straight. We pick fights. People aren’t pleased, and they let us know. Stress escalates, and our reasoning and behavior suffer even more. We lash out, hide out, or opt out.
A Three-Step Process to Interrupt the Vicious Cycle
If you want to break this cycle and have fewer destructive conflicts at work, the first step is to become more aware of your feelings and reactions to pressure and stress. The second step is to consciously manage your emotions, and the third is to start seeing people as people, not as threats.
Step 1: Develop self-awareness. To interrupt the frustration-stress-conflict cycle, you need to begin by recognizing what causes you to feel thwarted, scared, or threatened and what drives you to the battleground. This sounds easy, but even well-intentioned people typically put self-reflection last on the list — there just aren’t enough hours in the day. Telling yourself you don’t have time or are not inclined to “work on yourself” will keep you stuck in a bunker mentality at work. Instead, make time and tap into curiosity and courage to try to figure out what kinds of situations (and people) send you into the stratosphere. The more you know about your triggers, the better you can control your emotions.
Step 2: Employ emotional self-control.Once you’re aware of the emotions that are driving your behavior, you can employ another important emotional intelligence competency: emotional self-control. This is what enables us to check and channel our emotions so that we don’t get stuck in a permanent amygdala hijack. We can manage negative feelings, see reality through a clear lens, and stop lashing out when we feel threatened.
Step 3: Build friendships at work. To minimize stress and conflict at work, we need to replace “I, me, mine” with “We, us, ours.” We need to stop seeing each other in terms of what we can get, and replace it with what we can give. This shift would result in less stress and fewer negative emotions. It would also lead to warmer, friendlier relationships — something most people need and want at work.
Developing self-awareness, increasing your emotional self-control, and recharging relationships at work takes commitment, but you don’t have to remake yourself to improve how you deal with strife. Here are a few practical tips to help you with the above steps:
Build mindfulness practices into your daily life. Mindfulness practices like yoga, meditation, deep breathing, and taking a solitary walk are invaluable when it comes to developing self-awareness, learning to manage our emotions, and short-circuiting the stress response. The research is mounting by the day: Even a few minutes of slow, deep breathing several times a day helps us to clear our minds, calm down, and choose our actions more consciously.
Schedule time for self-reflection. Like mindfulness practices, self-reflection helps tremendously with self-awareness and self-control. It’s hard to find time to think about our viewpoints and actions in our always-on world, however. So start small. You might, for example, reserve 20 minutes at the end of each week to reflect on what went well and what didn’t. But remember: Don’t fall prey to the “beat myself up” trap and spend this time lamenting what you didn’t get done or what you should’ve done differently. All that does is engender more stress.
Lean in to your natural empathy and compassion. Concern for others, empathy, and compassion help us to survive and thrive. Like self-reflection, this muscle may not be one you use often at work. But you can get better pretty quickly if you make a point to ask yourself questions that help you understand others’ points of view. Try these:
- What is he thinking and feeling about the situation?
- How is she different from me? How are we the same?
- What can I do to make him feel better about this situation and about me?
As you ask yourself these questions, remember that we all have a story — loves, sorrows, and joys in life and at work. And chances are that while another person’s story might seem different from yours, our human experiences are remarkably similar. As tempting as it is to blame others for our strife-ridden companies, the best way to make work a more enjoyable, productive experience is to lean in to our natural empathy, learn to care for ourselves and others, and take responsibility for our feelings and actions.
This article was originally published on HBR.