Angry yelling is rare in offices these days. But almost every workplace—even the most well-run—will occasionally witness a showdown—a loud, public conflict between colleagues.
When a blowup takes place, the impact is often office-wide—today’s open-plan workplaces offering little to shield listeners. On top of the damage to the participants’ own careers, such incidents take a toll on co-workers’ productivity and morale and drive customers away.
Still, the outcome depends partly on how the participants handle the aftermath. An argument can even be helpful if it brings problems out in the open to be solved.
Some 30% of executives and employees argue with a co-worker at least once a month, according to a recent survey of 1,000 workers by Fierce Inc., a Seattle leadership development and training company specializing in workplace communication. A small number of those arguments escalate into emotional screaming matches that no one can win, says Halley Bock, the company’s president.
After the first reaction—”This is really awkward”—many bystanders are unnerved, says human-resource executive Gillian Florentine. At one office where she worked, co-workers called on her to break up a shouting match among colleagues. “Heads were popping up over cubicle walls like gophers,” she says. Even days after the conflict was resolved, co-workers stopped by her office days later, asking, “Do we need to worry about that happening again?” says Ms. Florentine.
Merely observing rudeness in the workplace hurts bystanders’ performance on both routine and creative tasks, according to research led by Christine Porath, an associate professor of management at Georgetown University. Witnessing conflict “robs people of cognitive resources, disrupts working memory and ultimately hijacks performance,” says Dr. Porath, co-author of “The Cost of Bad Behavior.” Moreover, only 20% of customers who witness rude behavior by a company’s employees say they would buy its products or services, compared with 80% who see workers behave politely, she says.
Some conflict is healthy and speeds problem-solving. Tensions between Greg Nance and Han Shao, co-founders of ChaseFuture, a college-admissions and career-consulting firm for international students, erupted into an argument recently in front of three employees in the company’s Shanghai office. Mr. Shao, the chief financial officer, told Mr. Nance that he was spending too much time on the road or on breaks pursuing his avid interest in mountain-climbing. Mr. Nance, the CEO, felt strongly about balancing his intense work on fundraising, marketing and recruiting with downtime for rejuvenation. But as head of operations for the fast-growing company, Mr. Shao says, “I was juggling a million projects and needed all hands on deck.”
“We both lost our cool in the heat of the moment,” Mr. Nance says, but quickly “reined it in…realizing we’d become theater at the office.” The partners retreated to Starbucksto talk. Then they sought advice from Sebastian Marshall, a Taipei-based executive-development and profitability consultant. They now hold weekly “founders’ meetings” to work through issues. And Mr. Nance has canceled two planned mountain expeditions to spend more time in Shanghai, he says.
Mr. Marshall says the dispute “helped them refocus on the long term” and their shared goals.
Office clashes shouldn’t be allowed to remain unresolved. A few years ago, marketing executive Marta Garcia had a heated discussion in a meeting with another manager, as two employees looked on, and hard feelings lingered. About six months later, an employee tried to take advantage of the rift, playing them off against each other to get the schedule she wanted, Ms. Garcia says. Ms. Garcia invited the other manager to lunch and asked for forgiveness, enabling the two to present “a united front,” she says.
“Time doesn’t heal all wounds, it only makes them harder to repair,” says organizational psychologist Mike Woodward, who has coached Ms. Garcia on resolving conflicts.
Showdowns tend to happen more often in high-pressure workplaces with technical or professional hierarchies, such as hospitals, says Steven Dinkin, president of the National Conflict Resolution Center, a San Diegononprofit that resolves about 2,000 disputes a year, including many in the workplace. Employees facing tight deadlines and intense competition are more prone to emotional warfare.
People who find themselves in a blowup should step back and find a way to cool off, says Mr. Dinkin, co-author of “The Exchange,” a book on resolving workplace conflicts. Get out of the office for a while, or wait overnight if necessary. “When emotions are running that high, rational thinking is at its lowest point,” Mr. Dinkin says.
When a combatant is able to refocus calmly on the underlying issues, Mr. Dinkin suggests trying to restart the conversation by focusing on the other person, acknowledging his perspective, asking questions aimed at understanding his frustrations, and paraphrasing his points to show you understood. Then state your viewpoint and try to find a compromise that will benefit the employer.
Some issues, such as pay or performance, are too hot to handle without a manager’s help. When speaking to the manager, calmly explain the underlying issues in the dispute, and show you are willing to try creative solutions, Mr. Dinkin says. After settling a dispute, co-workers also need to agree on what to say to colleagues about it, he adds.
Bystanders often wonder whether to intervene in a showdown. “If you’re the intern and a couple of senior directors are fighting, it is probably better to just turn around and go the other way,” says Dr. Woodward, author of “The You Plan.” But if peers start screaming in front of others, suggest a break or guide them to a private setting to calm down.
A manager should almost always break up showdowns between subordinates. When an executive at Steve Blue’s company neared a blowup during a meeting with an overseas business partner, Mr. Blue stopped the conversation and “talked them off the ledge,” he says. He took the executive outside for a walk. Then he met alone with the other man in the conference room. After he brought them back together and told both what he had said to each one, they settled the dispute, says Mr. Blue, a speaker and turnaround specialist who is currently chief executive of a Winona, Minn., manufacturer.
If clients are looking on, it is important to do whatever it takes to halt a blowup. At an accounting firm years ago, Dr. Woodward saw a showdown between his boss and a client. “They were two strong alpha personalities” whose argument was going nowhere, he says.
He stepped between them and said, “Let’s stop and take a break.” His boss later thanked him for it.
Write to Sue Shellenbarger at firstname.lastname@example.org