Sharing a laboratory with others is typically rewarding – peers in close quarters become a sounding post for new ideas and a support network for the highs and lows of research life. But you don’t choose your desk mates and things can go wrong. Regular Naturejobs contributor Shimi Rii recently experienced how small disagreements can escalate quickly. Finding the right way to deal with conflict is not easy but necessary in order to ensure a harmonious work environment.
I recently encountered a conflict in my office, a ~300 sq. ft. space I share with four graduate students. With each of us nestled into a 5-ft wide cubicle with pictures of friends and family, an emergency pack of ibuprofen and vitamin C, and granola bars for late night studying, the office is a home away from home. In this safe haven where we spend most of our waking hours, there is virtually no room for conflict.
When my office mate first started conducting the behaviour, it was sporadic and didn’t really bother me. (To protect the privacy of parties involved, I won’t describe the actual behaviour, which was on par with general housekeeping violations.) After a month, the frequency increased, and it began to directly affect me, whose desk was located adjacent to theirs. When I asked my other office mates how they felt about the action, they were indifferent. I was on my own to address the behaviour.
First, I decided to go with the Direct Confrontation Method. Every website reiterated that communication was the most efficient step in conflict resolution. I thought, “we are all scientists, so I will plainly state my case with the evidence I have accrued.” It was important to me, as a female, to avoid displaying my emotions and simply state that it was bothering me. I sought out a time when my office mate and I were alone, and I asked to please stop conducting the behaviour in my presence. The response: “I’ll try.” A waiting period ensued to confirm the effectiveness of the method. A few weeks later, the behaviour had not changed. I wondered, when the Direct Confrontation Method doesn’t work, what is the appropriate next step?
Many peers advised me to go down The Boss Route. Some suggested I go directly to my office mate’s Ph.D. advisor. I was hesitant; I felt that if I was to go down this path, I should consult my advisor first and carefully explain the situation, so as not to put anyone in a bad light and create tension between everyone involved. I also wasn’t sure whether either boss could effectively resolve the conflict, not having jurisdiction over the other graduate student: what would be an appropriate disciplinary measure to be doled out for behaviour that was bothering one person? Even if we came to an agreement, the monitoring of changed behaviour in the office would ultimately fall on me, and we would be back to square one.
Convinced that conflict resolution was a necessary skill to master in my own professional development, I struggled to resolve the issue peacefully, and on my own. As a month passed with no change, I began to doubt my confrontation skills and my general ability to express my point of view (or lack of it), and even wondered whether it was a gender issue. I avoided coming into my office, and it wasn’t until another office mate asked me what was going on that I realized the office conflict was taking up a lot of my daily energy.
I decided to try the Direct Confrontation Method once again, reiterating that the behaviour hadn’t changed. Confrontation #2 didn’t happen: the conflict was exposed at a supervisors’ meeting through a few people I had sought advice from. Several harshly worded emails later, the conflict was “resolved”, leaving behind a bad taste in everyone’s mouths.
I don’t recommend this ending to anyone. If you have a conflict, Act and Repeat. Don’t dwell in self-pity and over-analysis like I did. Another thing I regret not doing was Asking for Help. I wasn’t alone in my office, and I should have asked my office mates to help me make my point. In doing research after resolution, I also learnt that we have an Ombuds Office that provides confidential, impartial problem-solving assistance. Do Your Research and be aware of these departments in your university. With the nature of academic workspaces being unlike those in a company or organization with everyone having the same supervisor, the advice of someone unconnected to the situation is beneficial.
Readers, I’m interested in hearing your views. Have you experienced conflict within your office/lab, and how did you deal with it? If your method did not work, what was your next step?