It’s often said that you can’t choose your family—and for the vast majority of us, this is true of our co-workers too. We will always find ourselves among colleagues who have different ways of working, collaborating, and communicating, and tensions created by those differences can sometimes affect productivity and morale.
Interpersonal disagreements in the workplace can be complicated by concerns over job security, seniority, and professional success, which is why it’s so important to have the right skills to turn the temperature down when things get heated.
Read on for conflict resolution strategies to practice at work, and a few proactive steps you can take to help prevent future issues.
Conflict resolution strategies between co-workers
Whether you’re involved in a particular workplace conflict or a witness to one, there are a variety of approaches that will help smooth things over and also keep issues from resurfacing:
- Identify your work style, communicate it clearly, and be willing to compromise. Interpersonal conflicts often arise not from competing goals, but competing methods. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that everyone works differently, and there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong way to get work done. Gain a full understanding of your co-workers’ preferences, be upfront about your own, and work together to accommodate both.
- Make note of different communication styles, how they might clash, and how you can keep dialogue productive. Whether it’s an email meant to be straightforward that came off as curt, or constructive criticism from a co-worker that felt like a jab, the different ways we communicate can cause issues if we aren’t mindful. Make note of how you prefer to interact with others, as well as how your particular style is received. Also be sure to incorporate productive communication methods such as active listening, or conflict mediation methods like reframing, to your skill set. This will help you not just mitigate problems, but actively prevent them.
- Remember that you’re on the same team. It’s easy to lose sight of this in the midst of a dispute, but as co-workers your jobs are always in service of your organization’s mission. What’s more, we are also concerned with doing the best we can, achieving our personal goals, and feeling productive and valued at work. Collaboration is a far better way to accomplish that than conflict. Try shifting your perspective on workplace disagreements into a more productive context by intentionally cultivating empathy—both for yourself and your co-workers—and reminding yourself of common goals.
How we communicate is just as important—if not more so—than what we communicate. You can be 100% correct in everything you’re arguing or advocating for, but if your co-workers aren’t hearing or understanding you, you may as well be wrong. In the vast majority of cases, simply framing the conflict at hand in “We” language, rather than “I” “My” and “You” language, is a great way to take a more objective view and find solutions together instead of continuing to butt heads.
When to escalate to HR (and what to do if there is no HR)
If you find that your attempts to communicate and collaborate are falling flat, or if you’re dealing with excessive behavior such as insults or passive aggression, it’s time to call in for reinforcements. Here are some options for what to do if a workplace conflict gets out of hand.
- Consult your manager or supervisor. Part of a manager’s job is ensuring a safe and productive work environment, so they should always be your first point of contact. Set up a meeting to discuss the issue, and prepare for it by writing and organizing your thoughts, comments, and ideas for potential solutions. This will keep you from getting flustered and the conversation from derailing, and it will help you focus more on resolving the issue than on invective or placing blame. Remember that there could be room for improvement on all sides—including yours—and be open to following your manager’s advice or instruction.
- If the conflict is with your manager, or if attempts to get them involved have proved ineffective, contact HR directly. Reach out to your HR department via email if possible (it’s always good to have a “paper trail” to refer back to), notify them of the problem, and ask for next steps you can take to sort things out. HR departments usually have their own conflict resolution strategies on deck, so bringing your situation to their attention will likely get the ball rolling.
- If your organization has no HR department, talk to other managers or someone at the leadership level. Even if there is no dedicated HR department or representative, organizations usually need someone—sometimes a hiring manager or office manager—to handle those tasks and responsibilities. Connect with them, or a trusted supervisor from another team, and let them know about your situation. Workplace conflict is unfortunate but not totally uncommon, so if your contacts have been at the organization for a while they will likely have an idea of how disputes like yours are typically handled. Additionally, if you have an employee handbook, now is a good time to reference it for any conflict resolution policies or protocols.
Communicate early—and often
When you’re dealing with workplace conflict, it can be tempting to just let things go, but nipping things in the bud is a far better tactic in the long run. Just remember that if we approach ourselves and one another with humility and compassion, as well as an eye toward our mutual goals and interests, there’s almost nothing we can’t work out together.
Looking for ways to catch potential conflicts early and prevent them? Check out our article, 4 Ways to Improve Workplace Relationships.