How to Prevent Conflict with Coworkers on Your Campus


Different people, same pattern

When two higher ed. leaders have difficulty communicating and working together, it almost always stems from the same pattern. Each party is convinced that they are right and are frustrated because they are not getting what they want. That leads to more criticism and judgment. People can get very defensive. Each person is hyper focused on what they want and forgets the importance of trying to understand the situation from the other person’s perspective.

To make matters worse, it is very common for people to know what they want but be unclear as to what they really need.

For example, a supervisor may want an employee to stop contradicting them in meetings and fail to see the issue is much deeper. The supervisor needs to feel respected. Trying to control and suppress one behavior is a “want” that will not address the need. The person told to stop contradicting their supervisor will most likely feel victimized, dismissed, and under-appreciated. They might complain that their supervisor is incompetent (for not knowing “accurate” facts), insecure (for feeling threatened by their ideas), and a poor leader. As a result, the employee will have even less respect for the supervisor, which will lead to more inappropriate behaviors. The two will continue to correct each other, damaging the relationships even more deeply.

Identifying the real problem

When clients tell me about problems they face on campus, if I ask them what they need, they answer by telling me what they want. To help them uncover what is really going, I usually ask two questions.

  • What do you perceive as the problem?

  • What does it mean to you?

Imagine that someone is frustrated because they need something from another department and aren’t getting it in a timely manner. It could be data from IT, a report from institutional research, a signature from the President’s office, a payment to be sent to a vendor by fiscal services, and so on.

Please don’t think that you have no influence with people who don’t report to you. The way they will “take care of you” is often based on how you ask and how you make them feel.

Here is a quick example of how to identify the need at the core of the issue.

  • What do you perceive as problem? “I need a report from our institutional research office to prepare for a presentation I am making to donors next week and I still haven’t received it. I have asked multiple times and even CCed their boss but it didn’t help. Now they are giving me attitude…”

  • What does it mean to you? “It means they are not doing their job and they are getting away with it. The longer they wait, the less time I’ll have to prepare. There is a lot at stake! If my presentation isn’t convincing, we could be losing a lot of money and that would hurt the students.”

You see, the “want” is to receive a report quickly but the “need” is to have adequate time to prepare for an important event and do a good job.

Asking for what we need

In this hypothetical example, the administrator may have asked for the report without showing any understanding of the research office’s workload and staffing level. Lack of empathy and focus on the self rather than others, can lead people to say things that are not well received. He might have said “I need this report right away. It’s urgent.” and sounded entitled and insensitive. Repeatedly asking (nagging) and CCing the supervisor to put more pressure on an already overworked researcher is not the way to become that person’s priority.

Before asking for what we need, it’s important to show empathy and to communicate what we need, so that the person will feel respected, heard, and motivated to help. 

A better way to ask would have been: “I know you receive lots of requests for reports and data, and your department is understaffed. I wish I could have given you a heads up several weeks ago, but here is my situation. I found out today that I have to give a presentation to donors to show how their money benefited student success. I really need to reassure them that their money was put to good use and encourage them to keep donating. How soon would you be able to provide me this report? Is there anything I can do to make this easier for you?”

In this example, the researcher would feel understood, not taken for granted, and would understand the importance of a timely response. He might suggest that if the person who made the request would accept a simple data pull exported in an excel spreadsheet, instead of a fully formatted report with analysis, he/she could provide it on the same day. Since the requester only needs numbers to use in his presentation but doesn’t need to share a report with anyone, a spreadsheet is sufficient. The researcher is also relieved to know he/she can spend 15 minutes on it today rather than 3 to 4 hours later. Everyone wins. Do you see how having a real conversation focused on understanding and meeting each other’s needs is far more productive?

Showing empathy and appreciation

Showing empathy and understanding is key to improving employee engagement, motivation, follow-through, and quality. In addition, expressing genuine appreciation can help you become the person who gets more out of people who are notoriously difficult to work with. When people feel judged, criticized, under-appreciated, or taken advantage of, they will do the bare minimum. However, for the person who treats them well, who understands their situation, and who shows consideration, they will go above and beyond their duties. So please, don’t judge people on how poorly you think they are doing. Seek to understand, show empathy, find a solution that works for both parties, and treat people well!

If you think you shouldn’t have to do all that, because employees should do what they are told, you do not understand what leadership is about. People are not machines. You must take the human aspect into consideration and respect the fact that people are different and you can’t expect everyone to think like you do. Consider making emotional intelligence and interpersonal relationships your next professional development goals because you cannot excel without it.  

However, if you are up for the challenge and want to learn more about how to motivate people, build strong relationships based on trust, and become a transformational leader, I invite you to click here to schedule a time to speak with me about the possibility of working together.

 About the author: Dr. Audrey Reille has empowered thousands of professionals through one-on-one coaching, group coaching, speaking engagements, and online courses. Audrey is the go-to coach for leaders in higher education administration. She empowers them to thrive by reducing stress, optimizing strategies, improving professional relationships, and developing a strong and empowered mindset.

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