The ‘fracas’ continues this week after Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson allegedly punched a colleague and was subsequently suspended. Oisin Tymon, the colleague in question, fears that the incident has ‘ruined his life’ and that he’ll lose his job because of it. Article by Nigel Purse, Director of The Oxford Group and author of 5 Conversations: How to transform trust, engagement and performance at work.
Unfortunately, while perhaps not so extreme (or publically played out), conflict situations at work are more common than we would like. As part of our research for the book, we asked over 1,000 people how they manage unhelpful behaviour at work. Only one in three said that they would feel confident approaching a colleague to resolve a difficult situation, with a quarter of people saying that addressing the behaviour made the situation worse.
A friend, Sarah, found herself in what seemed like a no win situation at work when she stood up for her line manager: “I sat next to Greg, and he would constantly complain about our boss Jeanette. He had been overlooked for her role, and so attacked everything she did. One day, the attack got really personal and I jumped in to defend her.” From then on, Sarah got the cold shoulder from Greg and began to dread going to work. “I asked if I could move desks or work from home – anything not to have to face him. He would make nasty remarks in team meetings. It started to make me ill and I seriously started looking for another job. In the end, Greg left – and took great delight in telling me I was one of the reasons why. I took the day off on his last day and I’ve never seen him since.”
Another friend, Gemma, walked out of a job when the going got too tough: “I was in quite a junior role and a more senior colleague, Vicky, took every opportunity to belittle me and criticise my work. One day, I’d altered the figure on a purchase order at someone else’s request. Vicky marched over with it in her hand and ridiculed me for getting the order amount wrong, telling me that the job would have been a disaster had she not spotted my mistake. She called another colleague over to join in with mocking me, and that’s when I flipped. I was holding a cup of tea at the time and I threw the whole lot at her before storming out. I never went back.”
As a leader, it is a key part of your role to manage these kinds of situation in a respectful way. One of the five conversations that we focus on in the book is around challenging unhelpful behaviour, so that the outcome is a positive resolution for all parties. There is a particular structure and mindset to approaching and managing this conversation. It requires respect – being respectful of the team members whose lives are being made uncomfortable by that person’s behaviour, but also respecting the person whose behaviour is causing the issue. That person needs to know that you respect them and genuinely want to help them be successful at work – and the only way to do that is to address the issues. There’s a fear in this situation that the person won’t listen, or that addressing the issue will only make it worse. But the process we suggest can (and does) work.
Firstly, focus on the facts. Be clear and accurate in what you are saying – and don’t forget to write things down. Present that person with the observations that have been made about their behaviour and ask if they recognise and acknowledge the behaviour you are describing. Secondly, talk about your feelings, and the feelings of other colleagues. The person needs to know what reaction their actions are actually causing. Then give them a chance to discuss their feelings. How were they feeling then? What about now? Next you need to address needs. What needs do you and the rest of the team have? Give that person a chance to tell you their needs. What’s important to them?
And finally, agree on what your requests are. It could be that you request the person to hold back on giving criticism in an unhelpful way. Or that you request that person apologises to a colleague they have offended. Then give that person the opportunity to make any requests of you. Done authentically and talking honestly, without blaming the other person, can actually improve and deepen your relationship. It gives you a framework in which to operate, and should ensure that the team can work together harmoniously in the future – without any thrown punches or tea cups.