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Stay out of crossfire when Midwest technology workers go to war

CHICAGO – You're the competitive type. You enjoy the occasional game of beach volleyball or some action on the squash court. If the weather cooperates, you might even be up for a paintball outing. Most of us leave it at that.

We don't need to go to war at work. Being a pacifist, though, won't help you if you get caught between warring co-workers.

Much as you might like to hang an innocent bystander sign on your cube and leave it at that, it's not so easy to remove yourself from the hostilities. Here's some advice on how to avoid getting wounded when Midwest tech workers declare war on one another.

It's hard to know how these conflicts get started. Someone criticizes someone else's idea, one person gets promoted ahead of the other or personalities clash and don't get unclashed. Resentment brews and tempers flare.

Pretty soon, one or both combatants are muttering about the other one's work habits, attitude or intelligence. After that, no one is safe. Any little incident or remark gets blown out of proportion and things get personal.
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People become paranoid. "She's out to get me!" An otherwise normal co-worker starts to resemble a possessed soul. When co-workers go to war, things get ugly really fast. How do you pull a Switzerland and stay out of the conflict?

The first rule is to eliminate any behaviors on your part that would signal support for one side or the other. If you tend to nod absentmindedly and say "uh huh" when people talk to you, watch out. If you agree with one fighter's barbs about the other, you've picked sides. That's a bad thing to do.

Watch your behavior, and when Stan criticizes Carol or vice versa, clam up. If it goes on, say: "Stan, I'm sorry you and Carol seem to have a conflict." Don't sympathize with Stan's suffering at Carol's hands and don't cluck over his list of grievances.

Make it clear that you're not going to get sucked in.

Staying clear of the conflict is really hard for some people. If you have always gone to lunch with Carol and all she can talk about now is Stan's efforts to make her look bad, you might have to go on a no-lunch diet with her really suddenly.

You might also have to let Carol know that the subject of Stan is off limits during your conversations. If Stan is also complaining to you about Carol, don't say so! The last thing you want to do is be a go-between for enemy camps.

Secondly, when the fight bubbles over the rim and becomes disruptive to the workplace, say so.

If Stan makes a habit out of blasting Carol, he needs to stop. When he says: "She's driving me crazy with those bird-brained memos," say: "Stan, the Carol thing is a problem for you, but telling me about it isn't going to fix it. How about talking with Carol directly or with our manager?" The same thing applies in the other direction.

Workplace warriors get weird and they get mean, and at this point, Stan may accuse you of disloyalty. That's OK. You signed up to do a job rather than to prove lifelong devotion to anyone. You don't have to take sides and you shouldn't.

If Stan and Carol find that no one will support them in their struggles against each other, they'll have more incentive to drop their weapons. This can be hard to do after sides have been taken. The more barbs that have been flung, the tougher it is to back down.

If you need to involve your manager to get back to business, you should. This is one case where tattling is fine so long as you present the problem as a conflict rather than a case of wrong doing. No one's at fault, necessarily, but there's a communication breakdown in department whatever that needs to be fixed.

I don't recommend that you play Kofi Annan and try to broker a peace, either. There's no percentage in that unless you're the group manager and you could make yourself a target by inserting yourself in the process.

You can support the two battlers in settling their differences by focusing on work instead of the personalities. If Carol asks you: "Doesn't Stan's arrogance drive you crazy?," you can say: "I've had issues at one time or another with almost everyone here, including you, but I try to focus on the issue rather than the person."

If Carol is really wound up, she may call you a turncoat or remind you of times when you've also complained about Stan to her. That's almost inevitable in these situations. Stan may do the same thing.

Keep the high ground. Remind the warring parties that you're not in this thing and you're not going to be dragged in. Also remind them that you'd love to see the problem go away because it's unpleasant for everyone (not just the two of them).

It's hard to stay out of the fray. You have to work at it. Either the two combatants will melt down and someone will quit or get fired or they'll come to their senses and realize they have to bury the hatchet.

If that happens, help them out by erasing all memories of the unpleasantness.

That's the nicest thing you can do. Sometimes, the two co-workers will figure out that their differing styles complement each other well and they might even become great friends. You know what they say: there's a thin line between love and hate! But that's another column.

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Liz Ryan is the founder of ChicWIT (Chicago Women in Technology) and founder of WorldWIT (World Women in Technology). She can be e-mailed at lizryan@worldwit.org. Her column Nine2Five, which appears on ePrairie every Friday, is designed to keep you up to date with career trends and advice related to working and managing organizations in the post-bubble technology world. This article has been syndicated on the Wisconsin Technology Network courtesy of ePrairie, a user-driven business and technology news community distributed via the Web, the wireless Web and free daily e-mail newsletters.

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The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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