Dealing with Conflict in the Workplace

Conflict can be a very constructive thing – bringing about change, new ideas and jumpstarting progress. Getting to that point, though, is much easier said than done. Most people would rather scrub the circa 1991 office coffee maker with their very own toothbrush than confront someone at work with whom they’re having an interpersonal issue. So whether you have a colleague routinely stepping on your toes, you feel like your boss has been treating you unfairly or you suspect that Bob the office admin is surreptitiously stealing the US Weekly magazine you have sent to your work address, here are a few pointers that can help bring you closer to workplace nirvana. (On a serious note, harassment and threatening behavior is never ok in the workplace. Should a conflict arise with these characteristics, don’t try to resolve it yourself – you need to report the incident to HR immediately.)

Is it worth the fight? We’re all faced with conflict everyday. Are they all annoying? Yes. Do they all affect our job performance? No. You need to make this distinction. For example, I once had a boss who, on a quasi-regular basis, would have accessories for his Jeep shipped to work. Inevitably, they would be plopped down in front of my cube and remain there for the rest of the day. One time it was 4 ginormous tires that stunk to high heaven. While working in the aromatic equivalent of a petro-chemical plant was incredibly annoying, I decided that it wasn’t really affecting my job, so I let it go. However, if you’re faced with a situation that affects your ability to do your job successfully or impacts your happiness at work – you owe it to yourself to have a conversation about it. Particularly if it’s with a person with whom you have a high level of interdependency.

Set the stage. Before you have a conversation to address the issue at hand, it’s helpful to have a pre-conversation. No one likes being ambushed so you want to give the other person an opportunity to be prepared. Also, your tone here can really grease the wheels for a productive conversation later. While your first instinct might lead you to say, “Jane, the fact that you do absolutely no work on Project X and then try to take all the credit when we meet with our boss, really ticks me off. Can we discuss that?” You might try saying something like, “Jane, I’d like to talk about Project X and discuss what we can do to ensure we’re working together as effectively as possible. Is there a time we can meet?” It isn’t quite as satisfying, but I promise you, it’ll go a lot further toward facilitating an agreeable resolution. After all, you’re still going to have to work together.

The main event. At this point, you’ve set the stage, booked a conference room in neutral territory, taken a few deep breaths and you’re ready to get down to it.

  • Recognize there are two contenders in the ring
    Obviously you have an issue concerning this person, otherwise you wouldn’t be here. The purpose though, is to come to a resolution that works for you both, otherwise this is just a case of “I’m right and you’re wrong.” So understanding their point of view is an important step in this process. Try this: state your desired outcome (working more effectively together on Project X), focus on the behaviors that have been problematic, describe the impact that’s had on you and then ask for their reactions/perspective.
  • Staying open won’t get you clobbered
    Now’s the time to employ those active listening skills! Take the time to really hear what the other person has to say and ask questions to ensure you understand the points they’re trying to communicate. Staying true to the message you need to get across is essential, but by maintaining an open environment you may be surprised by what you learn and it could bring you to a resolution you didn’t expect. In addition, learning to have constructive conversations with your colleagues in an open, non-accusatory manner is a tremendously valuable skill that will earn you respect at work.

Closing the gap
You’ve heard each other’s perspectives, everything’s out on the table, now what are you going to do about it? The two of you should come to some agreement on how you’ll interact with each other going forward. You might even decide to check in with each other from time to time to ensure you’ve embarked on the right path.

Piece of cake, right? Well, not really. Conflict is always uncomfortable and these conversations don’t always go smoothly, even for people who are really good at it. By dealing with it though, you’re taking responsibility for your own success. Also, the more you do it, the easier it gets and we could certainly all stand to make our lives at work easier – it’s a jungle out there!


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  • Guest

    I once had a co-worker like that hypothetical Jane. She was functionally illiterate, but very crafty. (Yet our company hired her.) She did hardly any work and took credit for the work I did. Our supervisor, an extremely incompetent and corrupt woman, was so out of touch with what was going on (since she was busy taking bribes and skipping work) that she believed that my co-worker was the hardworking one.

    Fortunately, a second co-worker explained to our supervisor that I was the one who did most of the work. This co-worker had experienced my first co-worker’s laziness first-hand and didn’t want to be stuck with her in case I was fired or decided to resign.

    Eventually, when I was about to go on vacation, my supervisor asked me to train my lazy, scheming co-worker to take over my tasks during my absence – a sign that she’d had some sense knocked into her. Knowing that my co-worker lacked the aptitude to do my job, I only gave her some rudimentary instruction, knowing that she wouldn’t put it to use. My second co-worker, who needed only a little bit of training to assume my tasks, ended up covering for me.

    After I returned from vacation, my second co-worker and I decided to quit within ten days of each other. Our department was small (only five employees), so two resignations in such a short space of time were a big blow and the news spread throughout the rest of the company like wildfire. (Almost everyone knew our supervisor was a POS.) My first co-worker, seeing that all our duties would fall upon her, wanted to quit, too, but our supervisor’s superior asked her not to lest our supervisor be left hanging. (Not that she didn’t deserve it.) It was great to see her scheme backfire.

    That lazy co-worker is still with the company and still getting others to do most of the work. Given her lack of skills and work ethic, she can’t get a job anywhere else. My supervisor retired a couple of years after I left. None of that matters to me now, even though I still harbor some bitterness when I think back to those times.

    My experience taught me some lessons, though: 1) do your job correctly and competently, and someone will notice. 2) It’s great to have sympathetic co-workers. That makes bearing a difficult situation easier.