As a union rep, there’s one phrase that I hear too often: “But I thought they were my friend!”
I hear it when one member reports something about another member, and it always sounds like a cry of frustration. Almost every time—no matter the job, age, cultural differences, skill level, or education—I hear the same surprise, shock, and disappointment in their voice.
I represent mostly members working in healthcare and long term care in Ontario, and it seems like these kinds of situations happen far too frequently. The pressure of working short, of being responsible to the expectations of coworkers, floor managers, family members, and residents, leads to an environment of high stress and seemingly unachievable performance.
Stress at work is not unique to healthcare. Anybody working under high levels of stress can snap sometimes. If the person on the receiving end decides to tell a manager or supervisor, the situation can quickly snowball into discipline, hurt feelings, and the desire to avoid someone they usually liked working with.
When your coworker is your friend, it’s easy to feel blindsided and wounded by someone you trusted when they complain about you. I often hear, “Why didn’t they say something before?”
Some may be tempted to avoid making friends at work and instead simply focus on the job at hand. This way, they feel they can protect themselves from being emotionally hurt.
There was a time when this impersonal, strictly professional view of work relationships was the norm. But being impersonal at work is now seen as unhealthy. We are complex individuals and are more than our profession.
Practically speaking, having some knowledge of your coworkers’ lives can make a huge difference in how you handle conflict with them. It helps you understand why your coworker is a bit short or ignoring you when you know that they were up all night with their child or working through something.
But everyone has different comfort levels with sharing personal information at work. Sharing too much can lead to frustration, shortened tolerance, and even mental exhaustion—there’s a difference between knowing a coworker is struggling with a life circumstance versus hearing about their “evening activities.”
Here are five ways to strike a balance between being personal and professional and getting through times of conflict with our coworkers—whether they are our friends or not.
1. Respect each other. – You don’t need to like your coworkers or be their friend. But you do need to accept them as fellow human beings—each with their own cares, joys, and struggles—and to respect their role and job at work.
2. Healthy work relationships require communication. – Having meaningful conversations with your coworkers will help you handle the times when the pressures of work cause them to snap at you. Or when you snap at them.
3. Have an assumption of good intentions. – When you’re driving and you accidentally cut someone off, you rationalize it. Maybe you were running late for an appointment or not paying as much attention as you should have. But when someone cuts you off, you assume they’re a jerk. It’s always easier to see someone else as the problem while giving yourself the benefit of the doubt. Try switching it around. How would your coworker see what you just did, not knowing why you did it? What could explain your coworker’s action that isn’t negative?