Work often the culprit in workplace people problems

Tom can feel his back tighten every time he approaches his coworker, Sam. In fact, when possible, he avoids Sam even though he knows he must work cooperatively with him to get his job done. "Sam is simply a pain in the neck. He's always argumentative," Tom explains.

Jack has built up a genuine dislike for Paula in Customer Service over the past 6 months. Jack said, "Paula is never finished with her parts of our joint project. I don't understand how anyone could be so irresponsible!"

For many of us, when we are involved with a difficult coworker, our emotional reaction casts a shadow on our ability to objectively analyze the problem. We bristle about our coworker's lack of cooperation and responsibility or complain about his rotten attitude.

The truth is, the work itself is often the culprit - not the person. And now that companies are removing layers of middle management and blurring the lines of formal authority and responsibility, these coworker conflicts are springing up more than ever.

Employees are working with less direct supervision; running their own problem-solving meetings and serving on cross-departmental task forces. Although this is the right approach for companies to take, it does cause problems employees aren't used to dealing with. All these years, the boss was the rule-maker and problem-solver. Now employees are faced with solving these problems on their own.

Companies are downsizing and "streamlining" but most aren't teaching employees how to resolve the conflict that most certainly follows. Some companies offer courses on how to handle "difficult people" but put all the focus on personalities and styles. Although personalities and style differences cause some workplace conflicts, I'd venture to say the real cause of 70 percent of conflicts is the way the work is structured and rewarded.

Are you finding yourself working with more people over whom you have no direct control? If you want to learn to handle it better on your own, ask these questions the next time you butt heads with a coworker.

  • How does this person's behavior get in the way of my work?
  • What structural problems might be causing the conflict? - Conflicting roles, accountability, responsibility, unclear expectations from above or between us, competition for resources, lack of leadership, workload?
  • What specific behaviors have I observed the other person doing (that causes the problem)? Have I told the person what I have observed and described how it causes problems for me?
  • What might I be doing that causes problems for the other person? Have I asked the person this question?
  • What do I need from this person? (Be specific. For example, "I need your cooperation" is too vague.)
  • Have I told this person exactly WHAT I need and WHY in clear, direct but non-judgmental language?
  • Have I asked the person how I can help them meet their needs?
  • What one thing would improve the situation that I would be willing to try? Have I offered it to the person?
  • Does anyone else have similar problems with this individual? If more than one person is having problems, what can the group do to help?
  • What personal issues might be causing the conflict? What can be done about this? 

What you may discover is the underlying issue-- which has less to do with personality than you thought.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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