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Five Sure-Fire Ways To Cause Conflict At Work

Being pegged as a troublemaker on the job doesn’t do much for building a reputation as a team player–or a leader, for that matter. Whether you’re looking for your first real job or can see the light at the end of a lustrous career tunnel, it makes good business sense to be aware of how your actions with coworkers can either create a positive working environment or turn an otherwise slightly dysfunctional workplace into a fully-armed battlefield. As a professional mediator, I’ve seen my share of office politics and soured working relationships. Though it could be said that each workplace is unique, over the years I’ve discovered that there are some fairly common ways people cause problems with co-workers that they later come to regret. Of course, few purposely set out to create conflict and many would like to blame anyone but themselves when troubles on the job occur, but rest assured there are certain behaviors that are more apt to cause problems than others. Avoid landing in hot water by steering clear of these common mistakes:

1. Starting every sentence with “Listen, You Idiot…”

Never filtering anything you say can feel good in the moment–but only to you. Belittling, shaming, or embarrassing co-workers tags you as the office bully. If respect is important to you (and you know it is), developing an attitude that you can disagree with someone without name-calling, over-emphasized sighs, eye rolling, or verbal insults demonstrates your ability to address a troubling situation respectfully without making it worse.

Instead of approaching colleagues with the attitude that negative motivation is the best tactic to get them to act (“ Are we still paying you?! ”), adopt an attitude that any kind of personal bashing has no place in a successful business. Sharing positive feedback or giving praise doesn’t create a team of wamby pamby babies who need constant coddling. Rather, it creates an environment in which others are free to compliment you as much and as often as you compliment them. What goes around comes around so think before you speak.

2. Working on the premise that only your ideas count

Taking action without consulting anyone else can start some really good fights! If you’re looking for the thrill of a slow burn aimed at you from colleagues who are sick and tired of your Monday morning memos surprising them with decisions they had absolutely no say in, then by all means only use your ideas. Doubting a co-worker’s ability to contribute to your success or believing that constructive criticism is just a backdoor way for him to sabotage you can be a mistake. Of course there’s always the exception to the rule, but if a colleague is trying to warn you of potential pitfalls, take him seriously. Even employees beneath you in the org chart have the wherewithal to come up with a great solutions, so be open to a variety of ideas from a variety of sources.

Asking a few well-placed questions before jumping to the finish line will show others that you are mindful and capable of seeing the bigger picture. Being arrogant, paranoid, and thinking that you have to make all the decisions by yourself can weigh heavily on you. I’ve found that if more than three people have told you the same thing about your behavior or attitude towards decision making, it doesn’t mean there’s a sinister plot in the works, it means it’s time for an adjustment on your part.

3. Pitting people against each other in the name of healthy competition

Sparring is a technique that works well for world-class boxers but throwing unsuspecting co-workers into the ring doesn’t toughen them up; it just makes them angry when they figure out that you’re the one orchestrating the tension between them. Some believe that pitting employees against each other is a great way to eke out a few more sales or get a project finished sooner. But doubling or tripling efforts on the same task doesn’t result in a positive outcome if employees are tripping over each other with too much energy focused on getting upset with one another and not enough attention on getting the job done. Sure, the team may look busy and all aflutter but where there’s smoke there’s fire and smoldering colleagues can cause a lot of smoke. Asking more than one person to work on a task and then picking a favorite doesn’t benefit anyone either; the ‘winner’ is put an awkward position with her peers and the ‘loser’ is humiliated.

Similarly, taking a “with us or against us” attitude or making disparaging remarks about other groups may create new conflicts out of old rivalries. Rather than using competition as a way to squash others, find a way to create and build a new definition of success. If you’d like personally to get noticed for a job well done, then do a good job of building people up based on their individual strengths and talents and they’ll return the favor. Competing against oneself–and winning–is always the most satisfying (especially at review time!).

4. Believing that mystery is a good thing (like in dating)

Matchmakers claim that mystery can be intoxicating when you first meet a potential mate, but attempting to be coy at work frustrates people. Using wimpy language like “when you get to it”, giving hazy instructions before running out of the room, or making someone else break the news to a co-worker that he’s not going anywhere until he finishes the marketing plan will create problems. You won’t be seen as the good guy if you let vagueness become your communication standard. Avoid being the employee whose behavior can best be described as “trying to nail gelatin to the wall.” Don’t let others think you’re on the same page and then bamboozle them with the complete opposite. One by one your colleagues will lose all trust in you and your boss may take on the mindset that you’re not someone who can be counted on because your word means nothing.

Your co-workers will appreciate clear, concise language. Remember, it’s okay to disagree but be professional enough to give people the opportunity to know what it is they’re disagreeing with. It’s much easier to come to resolution on real issues than it is to play 20 questions or resolve the wrong problems.

5. Never admitting you’ve done anything wrong

Don’t let ‘em see ya sweat and never, ever admit when you’ve made a mistake! That’s a very familiar adage, but I’m not sure when that advice is actually good advice. Ignoring occasions for self-reflection or side-stepping learning opportunities makes others feel they need to organize an inquisition against you. The fight becomes the focus rather than the work. Hiding or ignoring the fact that you’ve mishandled a situation or slinking around as a means to garner sympathy for poor outcomes takes a lot more energy than it does to humbly own up to an error and work to repair whatever damage your actions may have caused. If you find that the above insights are coming a little too late for your current situation, keep in mind that the easiest way to deflate anger with a co-worker is to listen to her perspective, come clean about your participation in the conflict, and work together to figure out to avoid similar situations in the future. Simply keeping your blinders on and only worrying about yourself isn’t enough. Consider her point of view (remember, understanding her perspective doesn’t mean you agree) and see if you can come up with a solution that can satisfy both of you. Your co-workers and career will thank you.


Vivian Scott

Vivian Scott is a Professional Certified Mediator and the author of Conflict Resolution at Work For Dummies.  She spent many years in the competitive and often stress-filled world of high tech marketing where she realized resolving conflict within the confines of office politics was paramount to success.  Through creative solutions… MORE >

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