Nine causes of conflict in coworking, & how to resolve them

When you start looking into coworking communities and other collaborative, open workspaces, you’ll hear a lot about the new ideas, innovative solutoins, and creative inspiration that they provide.

What you don’t hear a lot about is the messy side of these environments; what happens when people don’t get automatically along like best friends?

Conflict is a natural element of human interaction. People who agree with each other all of the time either aren’t very interesting or inspiring, or they’re keeping things bottled up inside. What’s worse is when these conflicts go unnoticed – or worse, unacknowledged – instead of addressing them head on.

Causes of conflict

Over 6 years, I’ve noticed some patterns in the the causes for conflict at Indy Hall, other coworking spaces, and communal spaces in general:

  1. People are messy. Common areas, especially kitchens, are the first to go. Individual workspaces can easily get out of hand too, and spill over into adjacent areas.

  2. People are noisy. Some people don’t know how to control the volume of their voices. Others have loud, klackety keyboards. Others spend a lot time on the phone. Some just don’t know when to shut up or leave people alone.

  3. People have different senses of humor. “Political correctness” is a wide range. Some people are easier to offend than others.

  4. People work together and the project explodes or goes belly-up. Perfect collaboration isn’t inevitable. So when people work together there’s an inherent risk: if a project collapses, can the relationship between the collaborators endure the divorce?

  5. People feel like they got taken advantage of. Same as above. Or worse, somebody actually was taken advantage of.

  6. People drop the ball on their commitments. People make promises that aren’t kept. Everyone makes mistakes, but be on the look out for patterns.

  7. People’s belongings are moved, go missing, or are damaged. From “sorry I just borrowed your iPhone charger” to actual theft & vandalism.

  8. People don’t honor their financial commitments. My policy on financial issues has always been “life happens, but don’t make me chase you.”

  9. People feel entitled to something they’re not getting. Sometimes people expect more than you’re prepared to offer. Other times people just want to believe that they’re special.

Where conflict comes from

Many conflict creators in communities and sharing are the result of an effect called “The tragedy of the commons”. Most often, “tragedy of the commons”-type conflicts happen when there is an imbalance in give and take in the community.

At Indy Hall, we experience “The tragedy of the commons” most heavily during periods of growth. When we add a lot of new members to the group, we have to work extra hard to help them understand how they can contribute instead of just viewing Indy Hall as a resource to consume. Without this intentionality, we see noticable shifts in overall cultural norms and the entire community can begin to feel the effects.

Example message from a member that illustrates “The tragedy of the commons”

Similarly, when a community begins to get too comfortable, even the smallest changes can be perceived as a personal disruption rather than ongoing improvement for everyone. This sort of terrirorialism can be cancerous

While the scenarios I’ve outlined above are general, every one has a major theme in common: a breakdown in trust and communication.

Restoring trust and communication isn’t simple.

Best practices for resolving conflicts

Acknowledge the problem

I alluded to this before, but the worst thing you can do is pretend that there isn’t a problem.

If you’re afraid of addressing the problem, remember that your fears about “how it’s going to go” and that “people are going to hate you if you screw them over” are far from reality. In most cases, people will express relief that you’ve noticed.

Acknowledgement of the problem isn’t the same as resolving the problem. In fact, it’s important to separate the two into descreet “steps”.

Collaborativly author (and implement) resolutions

The second worst thing you can do is attempt to mend the problem all by yourself. Healthy communities are remarkably self-healing, and in fact communities can become stronger in the face of a challenge…but you have to give them a chance (and sometimes some guidance) to work things out themselves. A community’s immune system is like a muscle – it needs to be worked in order to get strong. A healthy community can deal with conflict on its own far more effectively than you can on its behalf.

Remind members of core values and the purpose of the community, and help them find common ground rather than a “win/lose” outcome. Very few problems can’t be resolved with this kind of communication.

Be paitent, leave “space”

In all cases, remember that humans are fragile, but remarkably resilient in groups. You have to give people some room to grow together in order for them to be able to work together to solve their own problems, even when your “fixer” instincts are their strongest.

Author: Alex Hillman
Date: June 4, 2013

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