Q. I just started a new job and one of the reasons I took it is everyone in the office seemed to get along so well. However, the better I get to know my coworkers the more conflict I can see. How do I do a better job of screening for a harmonious workplace?
A. The only place you'll find a completely harmonious workplace is somewhere that the unicorns roam. If you can't find that mythical office, anywhere that humans roam in groups is fraught with conflict.
I actually did my dissertation on factors that influence high group performance. I was curious how the best teams managed to balance each individual's need for independence with the demand that each individual cooperate with the group.
I found out that groups that contain people with the highest self-esteem and the most need for independence can barely get any work done. Teams with people who scored lower on self-esteem tests and independence were highly productive.
My dissertation results actually fly in the face of corporate wisdom, which states that to be productive in the workplace you should ooze self-confidence 24 hours a day. The truth is people who ooze self-confidence often convince their team to go in the wrong direction. The other team members figure that if one person is so certain, that person must be right.
The teams in my study that rocked the productivity house were composed of individuals who spoke more softly, listened a great deal, and encouraged everyone to contribute to the solution.
If you want to do a better job of screening for a company where the predictable conflicts are effectively resolved, look for teams with more brown wrens and fewer peacocks. The teams that collaborate are less likely to have any one person who acts like he walks on water.
The other proactive action you can take is to learn high-level conflict skills yourself. Then you don't have to wait for world peace to occur before you have fewer stressful battles with coworkers
I find some of my clients are initially intimidated by the idea of learning conflict skills. They don't realize that if you can learn a software program, you can learn the human software program. You only need some humility, some willingness to seek out resources to teach you, and the tenacity to keep practicing.
If you ever bemoaned your bad karma that you are uniquely tortured by your coworkers, take heart, there is no one who works for a living who has all the answers to human conflict. Even me with 30 years experience, 20 years of therapy, and three degrees.
Some of the best advice I can give next time you're puzzled by crazy coworkers would be to paraphrase the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, "Love the questions themselves as locked rooms or books written in a foreign language. Don't search for the answers because you would not be able to live them. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer."
The last word
Q. The older I get the crankier I get. How can I stop being so grumpy?
A. You can't. Getting grumpy as you get older is nature's way of getting you to clean up problems before you die. Use it!
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