Dispatch - Q2 2024

Dispatch - Q2 2024

Conflict at work

Dealing with difficult people–and knowing when it’s you.

I was recently walking down Houston Street on a busy Friday night when I caught a brief snippet from a passing conversation between two friends. One asked the other, “What was it like over there?” and the other replied, “Well it’s still a developing country.” They then zipped past me in their well-heeled weekend outfits before I could catch wind of the specific country in question. But I soon found myself thinking: aren’t we all developing countries?

Literally, some countries are still in the midst of developing their infrastructure and economy–the more traditional defining factors that come to mind when we hear the phrase developing country. Other countries may have impressive transportation systems and marketplace efficiency, but perhaps a longer way to go in terms of developing compassion-centered policies or practicing service-oriented leadership. Along this spectrum of evolution sits myriad realities that blend different varieties of progress and delay.

People are like this, too–especially in a work environment. We each hold varying degrees of sovereignty and influence, and likewise have varying degrees of access to resources. We each wield a specific set of skills and pursue an assortment of goals–some of which overlap, and some of which compete with one another. And we each come from a unique background with a wide range of communication styles and expectations. In the best scenarios, we use our differences to teach one another and to learn from one another. But, every so often, we just piss each other off. 

This quarter’s Dispatch explores how we can develop alongside one another through conflict and features an exclusive interview with IBM’s Inbound Content Director Elly Trickett. Elly and I chat about navigating difficult people, situations, and relationships, challenging oneself to grow, and finding a more harmonious way forward–at work, and maybe even in other areas of life.

How the conversation started and why it matters

We kicked off Q1 with a deep-dive into the state of mental wellness and work-life balance within the professional services realm. Initially, this Dispatch was part of that one. And rightfully so–our related Gather survey at the time asked independent contractors:

Q: Which factors most influence your mental wellness at work?”

A:  The response “Who I work with and for, and the health of those relationships” came in a strong second, just a hair behind “the amount of work I have”

To put it mildly, workplaces are fertile grounds for stress. According to the American Institute of Stress, a whopping 83% of US workers suffer from work-related stress, with 25% saying their job is the number one stressor in their lives! Taking these stats into account alongside our survey results, we can reasonably deduce that challenging relationships at work are a major source of stress, and learning how to handle those relationships in a healthier way can alleviate a significant amount of pain for a lot of people.

Nearly every role in the workplace requires that we engage with others on an interpersonal level using the skills that make us human. We must communicate, collaborate, resolve conflict, and manage expectations, all while dealing with power dynamics and our many aforementioned differences. These duties, and the relationships that underpin them, can either leave people feeling supported or criticized, seen or silenced, fulfilled or depressed, and so on. Let’s also not forget what’s at stake: people’s literal livelihoods, and often, at least to a psychological extent, their pride and dignity.

Reframing conflict as opportunity

As recent as 15 years ago, when I was just entering the workforce, the overarching message I received around conflict at work and dealing with difficult people was “It’s part of life, you just have to deal with it.” I don’t disagree. Dealing with difficult people is part of life and we do have to deal with it. But… what exactly does that mean? What are the parameters for “dealing with it”

Most of us first need to change the way we view conflict and the negative connotation associated with it. If we’ve learned anything from history, it’s that conflict is one of the most definitive and guaranteed parts of the human experience. What’s that old Ben Franklin adage? 

Nothing is certain except death and taxes–and conflict? 

Yep, pretty sure that’s it. We may as well learn from it what we can. 

At its root, conflict is an opportunity to more deeply understand something or someone–another person, a complicated issue, or our own selves. Arguably, it is all three all the time. If we can reframe conflict as an opportunity to listen more carefully and learn more deeply, then the early stirrings of conflict can instead become a door to resolution as opposed to the beginning of a fight.

Mind Tools provides a helpful outline of conflict resolution strategies to use for both substantive conflicts that are task-related and the trickier conflicts that are personality-related. 

Ultimately, conflict can also provide a helpful, if only partial, reflection of others and ourselves. We don’t grow as individuals in a vacuum; we grow in relationships, and sometimes the more challenging ones can be an avenue to deeper understanding.

Gather contractor Andrea Stein puts it beautifully:
“Conflict reveals aspects of our personalities that often get tucked away in a professional setting. It’s encouraging that our society is steadily removing the stigma from mental health care, because the root cause of conflict often has very little to do with work.”

While most of us are (hopefully) not experiencing anything close to a life-or-death situation in the workplace, even minor conflict, or simply the perception of conflict, can set off an internal stress response to fight, flight, freeze or fawn. Knowing your internal stress response, and being able to observe when it’s been set off, is a critical first step to reframing conflict. Being able to self-regulate, drop your stress response, and regain access to your prized executive function skills is next. 

Obviously, you can’t control the other person’s response; but you can slow yourself down and act conscientiously. And the truth is we often underestimate just how much one person in a partnership or group can change a dynamic. While our personal relationship to conflict can seem even more challenging to change, it’s far from impossible.

A whopping 83% of contractors in our survey said they are more comfortable with work-related conflict now than they were ten years ago.

The rest of the respondent pool said they were as comfortable/uncomfortable with conflict as they’ve ever been. But no one responded that they were less comfortable with conflict now than they were ten years ago. This proves that not only can we change our relationship to conflict over time, but that more often than not we do, and for the better.

 *Leadership action item:* Consider providing conflict resolution training to all employees, and of course to leadership as well (leadership training also helps). After receiving conflict management training, 95% of contributors stated that it helped them with future conflicts. I mean, need I say more!? (I will…)

The contractor difference

Interestingly, 72% of those surveyed said it was easier to deal with difficult people at work as a contractor versus as a full-time employee. When asked why, survey respondents’ answers touched upon themes of boundaries and power dynamics.

When you’re full-time, senior team members often act like they own your time. With contracting, there’s a different power dynamic—you’re treated like an expert in your field—and there’s more respect for boundaries
Stephanie Susnjara

Looking at the language itself, an employee is someone who is employed, which is a synonym for used, which doesn’t feel great when you think about it. Whereas a contractor is contracted, emphasizing that there is a contract involved in the relationship, inclusive of legally-defined boundaries.

As an FT employee, there’s more of an expectation that you’ll play politics. As a contractor, on the other hand, I find that clients are more concerned with whether I deliver enough value to be worth the price tag. Having that kind of clarity into our relationship makes it easier to handle conflict without worrying how it might affect “culture” and other intangibles.
– Matt Kosinski

As a contractor, I’m a third party, so I can easily side-step a lot of conflicts that I see my clients experiencing internally. Also, I get to choose who I work with, so my network does a lot to naturally filter out the bad actors. And finally, I can always fire a client and move on (whereas it’s harder to quit your job).
– Michael Terwindt

Many qualitative responses showed that contractors were more at ease dealing with difficult people because they tended to work with a variety of people, had greater flexibility, and were less beholden to the more permanent relationship anxiety that can come with full time employment. 

Consider that the project-specific goals and agreements contractors operate under also come with timelines. Knowing when a project will end can motivate us to finish it (and get the next one), but sometimes it can also help stave off existential concerns if there’s a particularly knotty relationship or extra challenging work involved. Our bandwidth for tolerating anything–or anyone–increases as the timespan for bearing it decreases. Consider the popularity of short-burst exercise programs or the pomodoro technique for focusing on getting tasks done. The contracting landscape has a similar bandwidth-mentality organically built into its foundation.

Feeling less burdened by such existential stress–since you know it’s not forever–then frees your brain to spend more time on creative thinking and problem solving.

Acknowledging your role

About six months into my first contracting gig with IBM, COVID happened. An uneasy situation was further complicated by the reality that I was working on an in-person event–of all things! And not just any event, IBM’s annual flagship event Think. We had eight weeks to turn a 100,000 in-person event into an online experience, all while trying to keep ourselves healthy and sane during a universally challenging time. 

Gratefully, I was working under the stewardship of IBM’s Inbound Content Director Elly Trickett, who I’ve interviewed below for this section. Elly led the audience engagement squad of about a dozen folks through a tense time and massive overhaul with the kind of compassion, strategic thinking, grounded honesty and positive attitude that most of us can only hope for in leadership. 

A coach herself, Elly credits her ability to navigate difficult situations–and people–with the tools she’s gleaned from the Positive Intelligence Program, the Blue Core Coaching Program, and IBM’s managerial training. Read on for Elly’s take on taking responsibility.

What piques your personal interest in this topic?

We spend so much of our time working; it’s hard for me to just close the book on an unresolved issue, interpersonal or otherwise, and leave it behind. For my own sanity, having these practices and values allows me to enjoy my relationships in the workplace and de-escalate conflict. Frankly, that makes life better for me. I’ve always held a profound sense of justice, so I can sometimes feel quick to draw, but Positive Intelligence and BCC lessons help me find a way toward resolution through harmony and knowledge.

What have you learned about conflict and dealing with difficult people? 

We have way more conversations with other people in our heads than we realize. When we do that, we’re filling in their part of the dialogue with our own biases. Also, there’s a lot of stressed out people in the world today. It can be helpful to remind yourself that you are not so important that you’re the reason they’re behaving in a certain way. We don’t know what is going with other people, and having empathy goes a long way.

How do I know if I’m being the difficult person?

If you think everyone you meet is an a**hole, it might be time to look in the mirror. Consider: why do I think they’re being difficult? Do I think they’re difficult as an individual, or are my interactions with them difficult? And if it’s the latter, what can I do about how I show up? I try to meet people where they are. If I come at them aggressively, I won’t get anything except maybe more aggression. It’s very pragmatic; if we want to not be in a state of conflict, we need to help one another start the process of understanding and engaging in constructive dialogue. Put the cards on the table and acknowledge it’s an uncomfortable situation; that alone can help de-escalate things. You have to see it as an opportunity to learn.

For more on this, check out a TedTalk I often point folks to: Elly convo, ted talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?si=T-v8QATnDuHJVuoB&v=-zdJ1ubvoXs&feature=youtu.be

How do I change it?

Self-awareness is key to understanding how to make anything happen. If you know who you are and how you have a tendency to react, that’s huge. If you can share that intel with the people you’re working with, even better. That opens the door for them to be vulnerable as well. Self-knowledge helps us all. Also, you can always acknowledge or apologize for any wrongs you have done. Whether they happened today, yesterday, or a year ago. 

Anything else?

As someone who runs a team, I know that the results are better when teams feel safe–leading through empathy and positivity gets those excellent results we’re searching for. There’s also research showing that intrinsic motivation is more meaningful than extrinsic motivation when it comes to white-collar work. When I first embarked on the coaching path, I was worried people at work might not recognize the power of positive intelligence and the “softer” skills. But I realized I had subscribed to my own problem, having conversations in my head that I wasn’t including others in. When I had the conversations I needed to with leadership around leading through empathy, and shared the results it led to, they appreciated it and recognized it’s not always inherent, but it’s what drives success and what we need more of.

Most people just want to be heard more than they want to be right. Listening without giving your opinion (unless asked) tends to be super helpful….
– Dan Weise

The dos and don'ts of dealing with difficult people

Sometimes hell really is other people. For situations where you’ve done everything you can but still feel bullied, micromanaged, or constantly stressed by the difficult people in your life, let’s close out with a few helpful dos and don’ts to keep in your pocket.

It’s part of my role/scope to help organizations resolve conflict. The most challenging to navigate are folks that are unaware of their behavior/tone and its impact on others even when given feedback and different ways to approach, but the actions/tone continue to not change or improve.
– Alex Love

Don’t take it personally 

I once had a manager who stormed down the halls claiming he was going to publicly humiliate someone over a *typo* in an email that was sent to clients. Yikes. I mean, talk about toxic. Clearly, that kind of behavior doesn’t come from a typo; it comes from being an unwell person. When someone treats you poorly, always remember that it says more about them than it does about you.

Do take precautionary action

If you’re receiving unhelpful and unwarranted criticism regularly or someone is constantly undermining you, take notes! Keep a document of dates, emails, quotes, requests, and any incidents. Ultimately, it’s important to protect your reputation and livelihood in practical ways. Knowing you’re tracking various incidents can also help ameliorate the “what if” anxiety around another person’s volatility.

Don’t put up with abuse

Not putting up with abuse starts with separating yourself from a heated situation and not reacting immediately. If someone is always lashing out at you, practice pausing. Give yourself the time you need to process your feelings. This will help you know when to walk away. Sometimes, it’s best to disengage from a difficult person when the situation becomes unproductive or truly toxic. Your mental health should always be the top priority. 

Do your best 

We’re all human. Grant yourself grace and always be kind to yourself.

Stay In Touch with The Gather Team


To stay in touch, please subscribe to the Gather Dispatch mailing list, and feel free to reach out to us at dispatch@gather.co with your thoughts. We’d love to speak with you and we’re looking forward to being in touch again next quarter. Be well.