Most people don’t open coworking spaces to fine-tune their conflict management skills, but it is a crucial part of fostering community. With 80+ members sharing a kitchen, meeting rooms, and resources, conflicts arise naturally.
While I can’t say I handle every conflict that arises at Groundwork perfectly, I’ve learned a thing or two with five years of practice. And since we’re sharing lessons learned in 5 years of coworking, conflict seems like an important topic.
Here are my top four lessons around dealing with conflict:
Address issues immediately
As an introvert, I’d rather hide and hope that conflicts at Groundwork resolve themselves, but I’ve learned that approach almost never works. The best course of action is to speak up immediately and address the situation. This prevents the situation from becoming more awkward and emotional, which will happen if you ignore it and let it drag out over time.
Example: A person listens to a conference call without headphones. You feel silly even having to say something about that, so you hope it is a one-time mistake. But they do it again, and this time the members are even more un-nerved. By the time you finally say something, it is more embarrassing for the offender because they know they’ve engaged in that behavior multiple times.
So addressing things right away saves you, the conflict manager, all of the time and energy you might spend ruminating and planning conversations in your head. And it saves the people involved the embarrassment of knowing that something was amiss and uncorrected for a long time.
Focus on shared goals and outcomes
I recently attended a live taping of the Women at Work podcast on conflict in the workplace. One of the big recommendations from the panelists was to approach conflict by focusing on your shared goals and outcomes. In the case of Groundwork, it helps to talk about maintaining a harmonious environment where everybody can feel comfortable and get work done.
When we look at things through the lens of what is best for the community, it becomes easier for both sides to see where they can compromise.
Additionally, if you frame a difficult conversation around the values of your community and it isn’t well-received, you’ll know that person is not a great fit. This is important information and allows you to take action.
About a year ago, we had a member who was going through a messy divorce. One day, he engaged a very loud and personal phone conversation in our main workspace. Several members looked to me, eyebrows raised. When I approached him about the call, he confided in me that he was intentionally seeking attention. He wanted support and empathy from the group. I offered to grab a cup of coffee with him and listen to his story. Sometimes, that is all that is needed.
It is always a great first step to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
It’s okay to show your feelings
Perhaps the most complicated and difficult conflict I’ve experienced in my coworking days was the unraveling of my partnership with my co-founder. She was also a lifelong friend, and our separation shook my life deeply.
It also shook our coworking community, and I was convinced that showing up as a strong leader was the way forward. Despite the fact that I wasn’t sleeping or digesting food, I didn’t show emotion or share my struggles. I was afraid that if I opened up even slightly, I would completely fall apart.
I realize now that strong leadership can include vulnerability. My falling apart in front of people may have even strengthened our community. In the end, we lost some members and I lost friends, and I learned a really hard lesson.
Conflict is part of growth
In the end, we can’t avoid conflict no matter where we spend our days. And since coworking brings a lot of different people together to share space, conflict is a part of the experience. While I probably won’t start extolling the benefits of conflict during tours, I feel it is an important part of the magic of what we do here. Conflict creates opportunities for personal growth. It also allows the community to strengthen its values and define its identity.
Want more? Check out lesson 1 from 5 years of coworking: people need each other.