Like the old saying goes, one bad apple spoils the bunch.

One person can make life miserable for everyone at the office.

Just one.

We can’t be happy in a toxic work environment, and that means we’re less engaged and less productive.

But, hey, let’s be honest. We don’t have to like everyone we work with. When we work for a big company with lots of people at the office, we’re almost certain to run into people we aren’t going click with.

It creates a conundrum for us. In our pursuit for happiness, how do we build strong, healthy relationships with the people in our lives, including our co-workers?

Getting along to get along

I worked with one company where one person in a team of 40 continuously caused people to quit.

We’ll call her Carrie.

She had her colleagues in tears on a daily basis.

She was a holy terror.

The company owner refused to fire Carrie, or even reprimand her. He thought the sun shone on her hiney, even though his churn rate for employees was exceptionally high.

This one person influenced the lives of everyone around her. Because of the owner’s steadfastness, the team saw no way to change it. Many found only one resort: to quit.

Those who survived found ways to work around Carrie, to disengage with her.

They completed their projects with as little input as possible from her, to the detriment of the overall business goals.

But what could they do?

Put themselves in the path of her negativity and disdain? Take her shots and constantly feel beaten down?

Tim Scudder, CEO of Personal Strengths USA and co-author of Have a Nice Conflict, says we have to learn to better navigate terse situations, express points in a way that resonates with others and, ultimately, prevent the conflict.

Sounds easier than done, right?

Well, sure, it’s going to take some work. But consider that, according to Scudder’s research, conflict costs American companies $359 billion every year.

A 2010 Statistics Canada study shows more than one in four Canadians describe their day-to-day work lives as stressful. It’s fair to expect some of that stress is because we don’t get along with everyone at work.

It becomes imperative for companies to foster and nurture positive environments where people like Carrie don’t inhibit the progress and enjoyment of everyone around her.

It becomes vital for managers — and employees — to learn how to better communicate and navigate the relationships in our office confines.

Tim says we can have “nice” conflicts by recognizing our own core values and trigger points.

When you choose to have a nice conflict, you’re applying an approach that gets you the results you seek while leaving the relationship stronger and maintaining the self-worth of everyone involved.

Learn a new language

When I’m working with corporate teams trying to solve conflict issues, I ask everyone to imagine being in a different country where few people speak English.

You’re going to feel a bit lost, like you can’t communicate.

For example, I don’t know much Spanish. If I go to Mexico and at least try (una margarita, por favor), someone is going to ask me to stop.

But I tried. I made an effort.

Making an effort and keeping the lines of communication open go a long way.

So, when I learn the results of everyone’s Strength Deployment Inventory, I can identify each person’s motivation.

The next step is to guide each person — and ultimately the whole team — to the freedom of choosing their behaviours and communication methods to fit with their core values and the values of others.

Parlez-vous ma langue?

With a better understanding of the people we’re in relationships with, we have a stronger sense of self and a stronger sense of our value as a person.

We’re happier.

When we’re happier, we’re more engaged with our work and our companies’ bottom line improves.

Workplace conflict requires energy and it takes its toll on us. We typically make the conflict about us and we go to the office dreading the day ahead, dreading the person with whom we’re in conflict, and strategizing how to avoid that person.

Now imagine if both people feel the same way? What’s happening to our work quality, our other relationships, our stress management?


Trouble is, resolving the conflict requires all the people involved to say “yes.” If we all come to “yes,” we can figure out how to communicate with each other.

Maybe Carrie is abrupt because she requires less detailed information to get her job done.

Maybe she isn’t ignoring us, she’s intent on meeting a deadline.

She probably doesn’t realize how her behaviour affects us, but if we open the lines of communication, we can better understand each other.

But if one person says “no,” she’s unwilling to align her values with our needs or change her behaviours for the betterment of the team. Like Carrie’s colleagues, we have to figure out how to make it work.

We have to find healthy relationships to align with and navigate the conflict.

Or leave.

Yes, if we can’t have open communications to smooth over the rough waters and the workplace continues to be a toxic environment beyond our understanding, we must create our own strategies for success or find our exit plans.

We can’t let people like Carrie hold us back.

Because we won’t be engaged with or energized by our work.

Because our away-from-work life will suffer.

Because our happiness is at stake.

And Carrie? Well, she finally retired. The cultural shift at her company was radical. The co-workers she left behind became happier, more productive and stayed longer.

Lesson learned?

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