Anger in the office: how to resolve conflict and avoid cubicle cold wars

Tackling toxic tension head-on isn't just sensible, it's critical to prevent workers from falling into what's known as 'artificial harmony'.

Disagreements with a colleague can easily slide into a cubicle cold war. That's not good for morale or productivity, so how can you resolve these issues?

By Candice Chung

Given that we can spend about 90,000 hours of our lives at work, and might see more of our co-workers than our loved ones during a busy week, it’s not surprising such proximity can sometimes lead to simmering conflict. While open but respectful disagreements can be expected when people work together, what causes an erosion of trust and lasting damage is often the result of much quieter, unspoken rifts.

What causes an office cold war?

“It’s been said that the most toxic people are not necessarily the ones that are overtly our enemies but covertly so – meaning you’re not even sure whether they like you or not. Those are the types of relationships that drain the most energy out of you,” says Peter Diaz, founder of the Workplace Mental Health Institute, which runs courses training managers on how to support the mental health of their teams. 

“Psychologically speaking, we’re looking at a cold war-type situation when two or more people are involved in a passive-aggressive conflict. If it stays unresolved, this can cause a lot of stress, not only to the individuals involved but also on a team level.” 

A good way to think of a passive-aggressive conflict is as an angry smile. People may deny outright that they are angry, but then behave in obstructive, infuriating ways. They may, for example, procrastinate at doing tasks, do them badly, or fail to pass on important information. Backhanded compliments and sarcasm are also typical. 

Often, what sparks a cubicle cold war can be seemingly trivial. For instance, what began as frustration over an unanswered email, or an unintended slight on a person’s microwave lunch, might lead to a growing bubble of resentment about the offender’s insensitive style of communication.

From a leader’s perspective, tackling toxic tension head-on isn’t just sensible, it’s crucial to prevent workers from falling into what’s known as artificial harmony, where people avoid calling out dysfunctional behaviour for fear of rocking the boat. 

In a dysfunctional team environment, where the overall level of trust is low and tendency for blame runs high, misunderstandings are more likely to sprawl into ongoing resentment.

Regaining control in a conflict 

“Often, managers are not skilled or confident enough to get team members into a room to have difficult conversations,” explains Andrea Doyle, a workplace mediator and founder of conflict resolution specialists Doyle Solutions

“However, if conflict is addressed as soon as it happens, that usually gives the best outcome.

“The first thing that should be encouraged is for the two people directly involved to have a conversation. That not only empowers them but helps both parties develop their conflict-management skills,” says Doyle. 

In her experience, the majority of workplace clashes can be traced back to mismatched expectations or communication styles. 

“Understanding the different ways people operate at work can be incredibly helpful,” she explains. “For instance, one person may not realise the level of stress involved in the other person’s role, assuming they simply weren’t doing their job. Or someone might interpret a delayed email as a slight, whereas [the person they sent it to] may just be the kind of person who works very close to deadline.” 

“The courage to handle conflict confidently comes from being in an environment where people know they can do so safely.” Kurt Wrigley, Leading Teams

In rare cases where true empathy cannot be established, or if the relationship has broken down so far that there is no trust, Doyle suggests breaking the deadlock by agreeing on some new, serviceable terms of engagement. 

“Ask each other, ‘What’s going to be our working relationship from now on [that would make things functional]?’ It could include something as trivial as agreeing to say hello to each other in the morning – something as basic and civil as that. 

"The idea is [for people] to start afresh and have the opportunity to set  their own ground rules. This means there will be no surprises, and a mutual understanding of how to operate around each other.” 

Check your office norms

When it comes to promoting an emotionally healthy office culture, experts believe the key is to focus on team dynamics, rather than relying on a rigid set of rules. 

“High-performance teams do have disagreements, but they also manage them well,” says Kurt Wrigley, facilitator at leadership development specialist Leading Teams

“It’s important to feel there is a safe place where you can have a genuine conversation, and where you can be open and honest with each other. The best teams have a real hunger for feedback because they know the intent of the people around them is to make them better.”

Crucially, feedback isn’t only about picking up on what needs to be improved in a team, but also about noticing the good things and rewarding people. 

“The courage to handle conflict confidently comes from being in an environment where people know they can do so safely,” Wrigley emphasises.

One thing that can act as a guiding light is to become attuned to your team’s norms – those expected shared behaviours which inform the way things are done around a workplace. 

In some teams, the norm may involve putting aside personal ego to serve the community; for others, it might mean staying agile in a high-stress, fast-paced environment. Whatever the norms, they should also uphold civility, inclusivity, dependability, a safe space for honest feedback and a sense of higher purpose that drives the team. 

In the end, handling conflict with your work family requires the same amount of patience and forbearance as other relationships. 

“You may not like that person. You may not even have chosen that person as your friend, let alone to work alongside this person for 40 hours a week, but how you deal with that is pretty much how you would deal with challenges in any other types of relationship,” says Diaz. 

If all else fails, try cutting the other person a little slack.

“Compassion isn’t always about the other person – sometimes it’s about you. You’ll enjoy your work more. It may not fix the other person, but it fixes you,” says Diaz. 

Professional Development: Working with difficult people. Learn strategies to manage your reactions, handle conflict with difficult individuals and get processes back on track.

Resolving an ongoing conflict

  • Ask yourself, “What’s my goal in this situation?” You will have better luck if your answer isn’t “seeking justice”, but to resolve things for peace.
  • Ask questions that will help you understand where the other party is coming from.
  • Make a list of things you’d like to discuss with the other party. Leave it overnight, then review it with fresh eyes after the heat of the moment has passed, crossing out anything that no longer feels relevant.
  • Don’t talk to everyone about it. Find a trusted friend outside of your workplace, if possible, who can provide you with some honest feedback and perspective.
  • Don’t catastrophise. If a person fails to return an email or say hello, it shouldn’t automatically signal hostility. 
  • Don’t send a dense email explaining your grievances. An in-person discussion often helps to convey emotional nuance. 
When discussing the conflict, ask yourself, “Am I being concise? Are my points specific and simple? Am I providing an easy way to for the other person to respond?”

Sources: Andrea Doyle, Doyle Solutions; Peter Diaz, Workplace Mental Health Institute

Explanatory styles: The way you see the world

How you react to a disquieting situation depends on what US psychologist Martin Seligman calls your explanatory style. 

“Essentially, this describes the way we explain the world to ourselves,” says Peter Diaz, from the Workplace Mental Health Institute. 

“If we have what’s called a pessimistic type of explanation, then we tend to see conflict in a pervasive and permanent manner. For example, believing that someone hates you because of a disagreement is very encompassing and hard to shift. Someone with an optimistic explanatory style might think, ‘I wonder what I’ve done to make them feel upset?’” 

Those with a more pessimistic explanatory style may perceive conflict and hostility in a situation where there is none. This could spiral into a self-fulfilling deadlock, where one person remains in the dark about what happened. 

“If you are prone to negative explanations, the first thing you can do is become aware of it,” says Diaz. “Question your own thought pattern and see if your fear or concern is truly valid.”

For those who find themselves facing an inexplicable cold shoulder from a colleague, Diaz advises that you ask yourself ‘What do I want out of this situation?’ before making your next move. 

“You can make a decision to be kind and compassionate. Ask questions to make sure you know where the other person is coming from and honestly review whether you are contributing to the problem. If people know that you’re not there to attack, that goes a long way,” he says.

Read next: How to foster workplace collaboration

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March 2018
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