A University of North Carolina survey that asked respondents if they ever experience backstabbing, rudeness or incivility in the workplace came to a not-very-shocking result: Of 1,601 people questioned, 89 percent said yes, they experience it.
But in the same survey, 99 percent of the people said they were never rude, or the cause of the conflict.
How many times have we complained about the gum chewer, the rude phone answerer, the cursing co-worker who sits next to us -- and then didn't think about how we ourselves might be the cause of some of the workplace conflict we experience?
Trudy L. McCrea describes herself as an expressive, outgoing, task-oriented person. She's a take-charge kind of woman, and that can be a good thing.
However, when she worked in sales for Microsoft Corp. with a partner, it was those attributes that got her into trouble with him. And they created almost daily conflicts.
"I'd say, let's get the project done for this deadline. He thought it was set in stone. But he'd have this passive-aggressive style in real negative body language, with his arms crossed and his eyes down," McCrea explained. "He would be thinking, this woman's a steamroller and I can't deal with her. And I just thought I was starting the flow. It was often innocent miscommunication."
That "miscommunication" exploded one day when he snapped at her in front of a client.
"He felt I was rushing or leading too strongly. I felt he wasn't participating enough. I was so troubled by his lack of teamwork and also thought he was angry with me. I finally called him and said . . . I think you owe me an apology."
That's when it finally came out that he had harbored negative feelings for a long time. He felt she was steamrolling projects while she thought she was just getting the project moving.
It is often the daily clashes we have with our managers or co-workers that can make it difficult to get our work done, do it well, or even drag ourselves into work in the morning. And as McCrea discovered, it often takes a real sit-down to get over the conflict and achieve work-peace. After their discussion, McCrea adjusted and her partner began to speak up when he wanted to lead a meeting. She would keep quiet, or ask him how he wanted a project to be run. "It was very hard to do," she said. But by morphing her usual practice of plowing ahead with the task herself, and showing her co-worker that he was a bit too passive, the conflicts diminished, she said.
A simple conversation may sound like a "no-duh" sort of solution, but it's something too many people avoid. "Most people are conflict-adverse," said Nancy E. Peace (no, I'm not making that up), a labor arbitrator and mediator. "They'll put up a long time with things so they don't have to have a conflict."
Like the person who wrote into the Life at Work live online discussion last week, complaining that a co-worker listened to a radio/television all day. The person asked the co-worker to wear headphones, but she simply turned the volume down.
"Should I approach her again or bring it up to her supervisor and just say that perhaps he could remind his staff (we are in different divisions) to review the guidelines regarding office music? I know this seems really petty, but it's driving me crazy! Thanks so much for letting me vent," the person wrote.
How many times do we let these situations get out of hand because we don't want to simply say: "Hey, please put headphones on. I can't concentrate."
Peace said too many people let it go. Orthey are afraid to push the conversation.
"You can do it in a way that doesn't attack the other person," Peace said. She referred to a gum-chewer who distracts a co-worker. All the person has to do is say, "I wonder if there's a way to deal with your desire to chew gum but not irritate me," Peace said.
McCrea, who is now an executive coach with Achieve-It LLP in Reston, helps top-level executives deal with workplace conflict. It's not huge, dangerous conflict that she most often hears about, but everyday scraps. "One of the biggest things that leaders and individuals fail to realize is how different their style is from others," McCrea said. The faster a worker can acknowledge that he or she has a different working style from co-workers, the easier it is to understand where the contention forms, and how.
"Relating to the needs of others increases our chances of getting along with them because we're talking their style," said Sandra Strauss, co-author of "Get Along With Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere: 8 Keys to Creating Enduring Connections With Customers, Co-workers, Even Kids."
"We can adapt our style. It just makes it easier then."
The reason these little conflicts need to be resolved is because they add up. "When there's a lot of little everyday things, morale breaks down," said Arnold Sanow, a business consultant and co-author with Strauss.
It doesn't help that very few of us acknowledge that a problem can start with us, he said, as shown by the University of North Carolina survey.
A little thing, such as a co-worker who passes by without saying hello, can turn into a major conflict, inasmuch as the ignored worker spends at least part of the day wondering why they weren't greeted. Really. That can grow into water-cooler chitchat, which can turn into a loss of productivity, according to Stephen Kotev, a family and workplace mediation coordinator at the Association for Conflict Resolution in the District.
Dealing with conflict makes an office more productive, he said. Good managers already have conflict resolution skills incorporated in their management style. "They know this can't fester," Kotev said.
There are many companies that get a third party involved in office conflicts. But in a perfect world, managers would be trained in conflict resolution.
Conflict happens. What doesn't happen enough is facing the conflict and taking care of it. And that's when the real problems begin.
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