Personality clash: Dealing with conflict in the workplace

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Things might get explosive, but difficult conversations should be had face to face (Source: Getty)

Most of us will encounter difficult individuals at some point in our careers. Whether it’s an overly negative colleague or an overbearing contact, the confines of the modern workplace give us little choice but to face these people head on.

Behind the headlines of employment lawsuits, there often lies a clash of personalities. And there can be real cost and commercial implications for business as a result.

Some employment rights, around racial or religious harassment for example, only require that the effect of a colleague’s behaviour be offensive for there to be grounds for further action (although a successful claim will also require some discriminatory element to the conduct). In other words, what matters is the alleged victim’s opinion about how they have been treated.

This means that a personality clash can quickly attract costly legal liability in the wrong circumstances. In a recent case, a claim for sexual orientation discrimination succeeded based on body language and derogatory gestures alone – a legal first – with damages of £7,500 awarded against the company.

Employment law offers some fairly blunt tools for dealing with this sensitive and pervasive issue, such as raising a grievance against an offending colleague. However, resorting to a formal process can quickly entrench the conflict and make working together impossible, as well as draining management time and focus.

Seeking advice on the legal backdrop is only one part of the equation. We know that exasperating personalities will remain part of our working lives for some time; they may be a colleague with valuable skills, or even a key stakeholder. Improving relations can bring better results than declaring war. Here are some behavioural techniques to help manage your workplace foes – and perhaps even convert them to business allies.


Difficult behaviours prompt instinctive responses. This means that we may go into survival mode without realising it, moving away from our professional “assertive, adult” persona to childlike, complaining or even vengeful behaviour. Your default position should always be to keep calm, logical and confident. You can control your own response no matter the provocation.


Think long term. It might feel better to resort to witty put-downs, but business relationships require measured responses. Identify your professional objective. What do you want this person to change or do? Decide whether to act or not, and then plan when and how.


When considering your options, be logical, rational and specific. What exactly did this person do? Isolate actual behaviours before you take steps to deal with them. This is vital in managing legal risk as well as improving effectiveness. It is harder to justify actions based on emotional reactions rather than on actual events.


Communicate by blending straight-talking with tact and strategy. Dropping hints or moaning to colleagues are two of the worst tactics. Difficult conversations should only occur face to face: email conversations can easily be misinterpreted. And as employment lawyers can attest, an email sent in the grip of emotion can form the basis of a costly tribunal claim, or dig your own professional grave.

King & Wood Mallesons and Judi James are partnering in a series of events using behavioural insights to enhance business interactions.

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