WSJ: How to recover from an office showdown

High-pressure workplaces—such as hospitals—particularly prone to blowup

Thanks to open office design, flimsy cubicles, and shared responsibilities, workplace arguments aren't a private affair. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Sue Shellenbarger explores why workplace blowups are more common in hospitals and how bystanders should react to office arguments.

About 30% of executives and employees argue with a co-worker at least once a month, according to a survey of 1,000 workers by Fierce—a company that specializes in workplace communication training. A small portion of those arguments escalate into screaming matches or emotional showdowns, Fierce President Halley Bock says.

These types of blowups occur more frequently at high-pressure workplaces with professional hierarchies and when staff are juggling deadlines, according to Steven Dinkin, president of the National Conflict Resolution Center.

One type of workplace that describes? Hospitals.

When you are part of the blowup

Coworkers who get involved in these blowups should step back and cool off, Dinkin advises, who also co-authored a book on the subject called The Exchange.  

"When emotions are running that high, rational thinking is at its lowest point," Dinkin says, adding that:

  • Workers involved in the argument should step out of the office or even wait overnight before resuming any discussion.
  • When both parties are cooler and ready to talk, they should restart the conversation by acknowledging the other person's perspective and paraphrasing their side of the story.
  • Then, the two parties should find a compromise that will benefit the employer.

Of course, some issues are too complicated to be resolved without a third party, Dinkin says. When speaking to a manger about the conflict, Dinkin recommends that you should exhibit willingness to try creative solutions to resolve the issue.

No matter what, do not leave office arguments unresolved, according to organizational psychologist Mike Woodward.

"Time doesn't heal all wounds, it only makes them harder to repair," Woodward says. Moreover, leaving conflicts unresolved can have a lasting impact on the parties involved and take a toll on co-workers' productivity and morale.

When you witness the blowup

Witnessing co-workers embroiled in an argument "robs people of cognitive resources, disrupts working memory and ultimately hijacks performance," according to Christine Porath, who co-authored The Cost of Bad Behavior.

Porath advises bystanders to suggest those involved in a blowup to take a break or move to a private setting, unless the argument is between more senior workers.

"If you're the intern and a couple of senior directors are fighting, it is probably better to just turn around and go the other way," Woodward says, adding that a more senior bystander should always break up arguments between subordinates.

And when blowups occur in front of customers or patients, it is important to halt the argument at all costs.

Only 20% of customers who witness bad behavior by a company's employees say they would buy its products or services again, compared with 80% who witness polite behavior between workers, Porath says (Shellenbarger, Journal, 9/19).


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