How to Determine if Workplace Conflict Is Taking Its Toll

Are you struggling to get along with a difficult co-worker? You love your job, yet there’s one person at work who makes your workdays virtually unbearable. On one hand, the job itself is great and you’ve worked hard to attain the position you’re in and the respect you’ve earned. On the other, the physical, mental, and emotional toll this person is taking on your wellbeing has you asking yourself if it’s high time to seek employment elsewhere. Try to resolve conflict in the workplace or walk away from it? It’s a tough call to make.

Figuring out when and how long to try and have a relationship with someone who’s highly adversarial involves many factors. There aren’t easy, quick answers. In this entry in the series “How Did My Family Get in My Office?” we hear from Grace who improved how to addresses conflict at work by first setting boundaries with her mother. 

Grace’s story may inspire you to dig into your own family experiences and find more effective ways to deal with conflict and difficult people at work. On the flip side, if you want to really examine whether it’s time to move on, we’ve got you covered on that big decision, as well. Read Grace’s story and then stay tuned for eight questions that will help you decide if it’s just time to walk away from the conflict at work.

Growing Up with Different Conflict Styles

“Conflict in my family was handled with extremes. My mother was Italian and grew up in an “in your face” Italian culture. My father was British and didn’t deal with conflict at all. He was very reserved and constrained. When I was growing up, Dad was also an alcoholic. He wasn’t a mean drunk, he just became quieter and more sullen most of the time. My parents didn’t fight often, but when they did, it was there was a mean-ness between them. I never saw them resolve conflict. The tension just kind of lingered between them.

After I left home, my father got into recovery, and his sobriety changed the relationship between my parents. They made a lot of effort to restore their marriage through counseling and twelve step recovery work.  Their relationship improved and, while my father improved at speaking up for himself, my mother still had a tendency to be emotionally impulsive, to fly off the handle, never really dealing with the conflict directly.

Growing up, my ability to cope with conflict wasn’t particularly healthy. As a younger person, I was highly rebellious. I did what I wanted to do, regardless of the consequences, especially those that might impact others. My conflict style was a combination of using humor to release tension or shift the focus, avoiding addressing the real issue, and trying to control the situation. How I dealt with conflict really depended on the situation and the people involved.

Grace’s Conflict Approach Reaches a Turning Point

Two events created the turning point for me in changing my conflict pattern and learning to handle conflict in healthier ways. The first was several years ago, my mother came to live with my husband and me to recover after a surgery. The anticipation of this extended visit made me realize I needed to do something very different in my relationship with her. Despite the high level of dysfunction that was present with my mother, I decided to be more intentional to figure out how to stay in relationship with her without getting caught up in the dysfunction.

I learned how to set good boundaries and stick with them.  The landmark book Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend and another book they coauthored Safe People, offered very practical help in setting and holding healthy boundaries with people who may be unsafe that started with my relationship with my mother and now I apply to all of my relationships.

The second event that impacted how I changed my conflict style was a quote by a pastor, John Wesley, from the 1700s. He stated, “Conflict rightly worked through can achieve a higher state of grace and trust.” That quote resonated with me that conflict isn’t something to be avoided or beaten at. It’s something to be engaged. In a broken world, we’ll inevitably have conflict and differences with people, especially those we’re in close relationship with, both at home and at work.

I pondered the John Wesley quote for a long time and it shifted my own world view around conflict. It took me a long time to digest and comprehend the meaning of that quote and apply it to my life…and I don’t know that I always live it out perfectly. But, in terms of my understanding of it, I often see that it’s true.

With every interaction with my mother, I was intentional to be present with her without engaging in the old dance that was deeply ingrained in both of us. For me, it was not bolting out of the conversation when I saw a situation differently than she. At times, I would literally say to her, “I’m not willing to engage around this,” which wasn’t often received well, but I did it anyway. Boundaries helped me to decide in advance how I was going to react to my mother’s emotions and to stop allowing her to dictate how I felt or responded to her.

The Conscious Choice to Stay

American author and Tibetan Buddhist Pema Chodron says, “Nothing ever really goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.”

From learning how to respond in healthier ways with her mother, Grace was able to apply those same responses to her work relationships. Instead of avoiding conflict or trying to diffuse it with humor, she learned when it was wise to engage with coworkers to resolve a conflict head-on. On the other hand, she was able to discern when it was smarter to simply walk away, letting the other person know she was unwilling to engage over the topic at hand.

Figuring out when and how long to try to have a relationship with someone who is highly adversarial is really hard to do. I’m personally challenged around this because I’m an optimist, so I tend to want to hang on to relationships. I think everything can be fixed and the reality is it can’t. Part of my own growth and maturity has been recognizing when something’s not working anymore and being willing to abandon it or let it go.

I made the conscious choice to stay in relationship with my mother, even when she continued to be highly emotional, because I recognized it was possible to engage with her on some topics, even when I didn’t agree with her perspective. Again, having good boundaries was key in how I navigated those topics. I also recognized that certain topics can’t be resolved with a person who isn’t emotionally healthy. That doesn’t make them a bad person; they simply lack the skills. But you can create a different kind of condition, where something new emerges in the relationship. And that possibility makes it worth the pursuit if it’s someone you care about. And then, there are other people, where you just say, “Done. No energy going here. Not interested.

Decision Time: Resolve Conflict at Work or Move On?

Each relationship or work situation is unique, so there’s no cookie cutter answer for staying at or leaving a job where someone is difficult to get along with. However, consider the following questions to gain clarity around your decision to either work through the conflict at your current job or walk away and find a new position.

[ Please note: These questions will not help you deal with bullying, abuse, or harassment in the workplace. If you’re experiencing any of these extreme forms of workplace difficulty, take action to protect yourself, such as calling your employee assistance program and/or visiting your human resources department.]

Work Through or Move on from Workplace Conflict: 8 Questions to Ask Yourself

  1. What has happened when you’ve attempted to address the problems in your work relationship?   
  2. How receptive is this person to taking responsibility for the part they play that keeps conflict going between you?
  3. To what degree have each of you made a concerted effort to improve how you work together?
  4. What attempts have been made to bring in a third party to mediate your differences?  If this hasn’t been already attempted, what’s the likelihood of this happening?
  5. If the conflict isn’t resolved, what’s likely to happen?
  6. To what degree is your emotional, mental, and physical health being affected?
  7. What strategies from your personal relationships could you employ for conflict resolution at work?
  8. If you chose to leave, what would be the impact on your loss of current employee benefits, including your seniority, job proximity to home, childcare, and ability to make the same or better salary with another employer?

Pull out a notebook and write out your answers to all of the questions. When you have all of your responses down on paper, in one place, you’ll have more clarity on your thoughts and feelings. Review your answers, noting the pro and cons of both your options. Use this evidence to weigh your options and make a confident decision!

Conflict Can Mean Opportunities for Growth

While conflict can be uncomfortable and messy, it may be an opportunity for personal reflection and self-awareness, as it was for Grace.  Whether you decide to leave or stay, do your due diligence to grow from this difficult situation. If you’d like help to sort through your situation and make an informed decision weighing the pros and cons of which direction to go, we can help!

This blog is an excerpt of the forthcoming book “How Did My Family Get into My Office?”, a compilation of real-life stories of how leaders changed their family conflict pattern and leveraged their leadership success.

Workplace Conflict Expert Bonnie Artman Fox, MS, LMFT, works with executive leaders and team managers who want to stop divisive behaviors, resolve conflict, and build the team trust needed to create a healthy work culture.  Contact Bonnie to help your employees get along and bring teams together.

Leave a Comment