Stirring Up Conflict at Work

Personal workplace advice from Handshake 2.0Dear Anne:

One of our company’s new hires is really stirring things up by questioning policies we’ve had in place for years.  He asks about sick leave days counting as vacation days and about insurance deductions for single employees and married employees being the same – stuff we just don’t want to bring up for fear we’ll lose the few benefits we have.  I question his motivations.  Is he trying to do the right thing or is he just a troublemaker?

Dear Stirring:

Some employees will stir up conflict so the truth rises to the top toward a greater good.  The means used by those employees may be assertive, aggressive, even sensational at times, but not cruel.  The intent is to reveal the truth.  Occasionally, in their passion for the truth, employees may overstep a boundary.  Upon becoming aware of it, well-intentioned employees will make amends.  Apologizing isn’t a loss of face because the face was turned to a higher purpose in the first place.

Some employees will stir up conflict for the sense of power it gives them.  Any means seem justified because the end is for personal power, not for the moral or ethical high ground.  If an employee’s means are called into question, he or she may change those means in the short-term, but will blame the person who questioned his or her behavior.  The questioner will be accused of small-mindedness, of just not getting it, of over-sensitivity.  To the employee, apologizing would be a loss of face, an acknowledgement of humility, a recognition of limited power.  That employee can be predicted to continue to seek the next pot to stir to attempt to satisfy the need for power.

Wondering if our co-workers will cause us concern – whether by actively generating too much conflict, or passively not generating enough – isn’t the question to ask.  The question is how we’re going to handle it when they do. Co-workers who generate conflict in the name of justice can be exciting and inspiring.  Co-workers who stir the pot for power can be dangerous because they will betray co-workers and the company alike if a sense of perceived power is the end sought.

If your goal is to master what you do and to get paid for what you do, spending time with pot stirrers takes time and doesn’t advance your plans, so the less contact the better.  If justice-seekers are in positions of leadership in your company, that could produce better conditions for all.  If power-seekers are in positions of leadership, watch out.  Their “ends justify the means” strategies could be the end of your career, either by a choice to let you go to better position their power, or by the consequences their choices stir up – or bring down upon – your company.


Need help with a personal problem at work? E-mail your question to Anne Giles Clelland at [email protected].

Please include the subject line "Workplace Advice." Anne regrets that not all questions can be answered, personal replies are not possible, and questions may be edited for brevity and clarity.

You're invited to read Anne's Giles Clelland's Workplace Advice Column on Handshake 2.0.  Her "Workplace Advice" appears monthly in Valley Business FRONT. A version of this column appeared in the January, 2011 issue.

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