The Dos and Don’ts of Handling Conflict at Work

the dos and donts of handling conflicts at work

Whether you’re walking on eggshells around your moody boss or drowning in passive-aggressive post-it notes from your co-worker, conflicts at work are simply inevitable. Unfortunately, they’re also usually unavoidable — knowing how to handle yourself in these situations is the key to not only maintaining your professional reputation, but furthering your career as well.

Dealing with catty co-workers, colleagues not pulling their weight, or the chronic mansplainer — we’ve all been there. Here are some tips for responding to these people in a respectful and productive way.

DON’T: Get Emotional

Because we spend the majority of our lives at work, being involved in a conflict at the office can be extremely stressful. However, (and I’m speaking from embarrassing personal experience here) don’t let the stress overwhelm you to the point of tears. It’s messy, it’s unattractive, and most importantly, it’s unprofessional. Not to mention, you will lose most (if not all) of your credibility and authority the moment you start to cry.

Go to the bathroom and splash some water on your face, take a walk around the block, or call someone you trust and vent for a few minutes to clear your head. This gives you the chance to come up with a solid plan for how to move forward, and approach any conversations you need to have with clarity and confidence rather than babbling through your tears. As a particularly emotional person (I cry when I’m sad, when I’m happy, when I’m angry, when I see a really cute commercial on TV….), I get how hard it can be to set your emotions aside when you’re feeling really worked up. But trust me when I say that taking a moment to collect yourself before confronting a work conflict will have a much better outcome than going in, guns blazing.

DO: Avoid Conflicts That Aren’t Productive

Even when things seem like a really big deal while they’re happening, this doesn’t always mean that the situation will still warrant the title after you cool off and take a step back. If handled correctly, work conflicts are a necessary evil that offer valuable learning opportunities for all parties involved. On the other hand, engaging in conflicts just for the sake of arguing or proving a point is never good for anyone.

If something or someone upsets you at work for any reason, always give yourself a little bit of time before impulsively reacting. Make sure whatever or whoever upset you is big enough to warrant calling them out before you do so — you don’t want to become known as the sensitive co-worker everyone walks on eggshells around for fear of offending you. Being passed over for a much-deserved promotion? Feel free to get pissed — but channel that emotion into something productive, like setting up a meeting with your boss to ask what specifically you need to do to make sure you land it next time. Feelings hurt from not getting invited to a group lunch? Not worth it (but no one will judge you for writing about it in your journal).

DON’T: Ignore the Chain of Command

Within every workplace, there is an obvious (or sometimes hidden) hierarchy. Learn the structure of your workplace and always follow it when dealing with any sort of conflict. As awkward and difficult as it may be, try talking directly with the co-worker you’re having issues with first. If nothing changes, discuss the matter with your team leader or manager. And so on and so forth. Only if the conflict absolutely cannot be resolved (despite your best attempts to find a solution) should you involve your boss or other higher-ups in the company (unless of course the problem is with your boss — that’s a different story).

Skipping straight to the top is not only usually unnecessary (most conflicts can easily be resolved before they reach that point), but it’s also unfair to your co-workers not to give them a chance to work it out before bringing it to your boss’s attention. Not to mention, the issue could have been simply a misunderstanding or communication failure, which would be quite embarrassing for you if you weren’t patient enough to wait for an explanation.

And truth be told, no boss wants to hear complaints. The first thing they will ask you is “what have you done to try to solve this problem?” If you haven’t tried anything, you will 100% look worse than the person you’re complaining about.

DO: Know When to Apologize

I know, I know. Apologizing sucks and no one likes doing it — but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Apologies weren’t meant to be easy, which is why humbling yourself enough to recognize when you should say sorry is such a powerful tool. Use it. You would be surprised how far you can get with someone just by simply admitting you were wrong. And even if you may not truly believe that you were wrong, apologizing is sometimes the best way to move past a workplace conflict and strengthen your professional relationships.

If your co-workers know that you are willing to admit your own flaws (rather than constantly point out everyone else’s), this builds respect and trust. Instead of avoiding you when there’s a potential conflict (which can quickly snowball into much bigger problems), your colleagues will always feel comfortable bringing issues to your attention and trusting that you will be able to work together toward a compromise or solution.

DON’T: Expect Your Co-workers to Read Your Mind

Living and working in the digital age creates a whole other set of obstacles to navigate in the workplace. But the biggest and most likely to cause conflict is the issue of communication failure. Text messages, emails, chat servers, and even phone calls cannot always work as effective substitutes for clear, concise, and accurate face-to-face communication. Things can get lost in translation, or even just simply lost. Don’t assume that you are always being 100% clear about your intentions and expectations when using a digital space; likewise, don’t make assumptions about someone else’s intentions and expectations based on the “tone” of their emails, text messages, etc.

If you’re bothered by something a co-worker is doing (or not doing), ask for a meeting where you can address your concerns in the simplest and most effective form of communication ever invented: face-to-face. This allows for the air to be cleared and all necessary questions to be asked and answered, and it eliminates a lot of the complication and frustration that can come from furiously typing away at your respective keyboards while sitting less than 20 feet away from each other.

DO: Try to See — and Understand — Other Perspectives

The most important thing about approaching a conflict at work is pretty similar to how you should approach any problem with most other types of relationships: compromise. Genuinely try to put yourself into the other person’s shoes and understand where they are coming from. What are their motivations? Why is this an issue for them? What would be their ideal outcome? While it’s easy to ask these questions of yourself, it’s equally important to consider the other person’s answers as well. If you approach all conflicts with the attitude of reaching a mutually beneficial solution instead of being stubbornly stuck in your own ways, you will find that solutions are much easier to achieve.

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