Resolving Interpersonal Conflicts at Work

By Deborah Weksberg
Career Coach
Jewish Community Services

With the streamlining of the workforce through layoffs and attrition in this challenging economy, workers are being asked to take on more duties and responsibilities than they may be comfortable with.  Increasing demand for more performance from fewer employees has strained the concept of collegiality, frayed nerves and short circuited business etiquette. Consider Lisa’s recent experience.

Lisa was part of a team project.  She became frustrated with co-worker Nicole for her tardiness in developing her section of the report. Fearful that Nicole’s foot dragging would reflect poorly on the team, Lisa turned to her supervisor to bring Nicole into line. Much to her surprise, instead of a speedy resolution of what, to Lisa, seemed a reasonable complaint, she got a curt command to “work it out and don’t bother me” from her exasperated supervisor.  Where did Lisa go wrong?

Let’s look at an alternative scenario.  Lisa should have gone directly to Nicole to work it out. She had sent plenty of emails reminding all concerned of the deadline, but she had not talked to Nicole personally about what was holding her up. By going “over Nicole’s head,” Lisa not only annoyed her supervisor, but alienated her co-worker with her complaint.  It turned out that Nicole was insecure about handling her part of the report because the material was unfamiliar to her.  Nicole also resented being nagged by her peer, who seemed disrespectful and bossy.  Once the women spoke face to face, Lisa was able to apologize for being high handed and admitted that her own insecurity led her to try to take control. Together they developed a plan to help Nicole with some of the new material, while Nicole contributed to another part of the report that she was more confident about.

Scenes like this play out daily in the workplace.  Usually they result from misunderstandings and lack of direct communication between those involved.  Being Cc’d on an email with a request to step up your game doesn’t cut it; neither does embarrassing a colleague by complaining to the boss.

Common causes of conflict at work include:

  • Competition – especially the perception that someone is taking credit for your work
  • Jealousy over someone else’s being promoted over you
  • Not holding up one’s end, laziness, procrastination
  • Feeling disrespected
  • Betraying a confidence
  • Irritating habits (interrupting, smacking gum, never adding paper to the copy machine)

Every one of these sources of conflict can be most efficiently handled by appropriate communication, either by talking directly to the “perpetrator” or by maintaining discretion in what you tell to whom. Try to think of how you would like to be treated if by chance you were the offender.
For best results:

  • Speak directly with the colleague diplomatically and in a tone of respect and a spirit of cooperation.
  • If the direct approach fails, try asking a supervisor for suggestions about how to manage the situation without divulging the co-worker’s name. Supervisors know they have to supervise and will respond better if they know you have taken preliminary steps and if they are approached for advice, rather than to dispense justice.
  • As a last resort, inform your colleague that you both may need to bring this to the supervisor or that you have no choice but to go alone for input and resolution.

Related article:
Office Email Etiquette>>

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Filed under Leadership Development, Professionals

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