How to Deal with Workplace Conflicts Like a, Well, Boss

McKenna Princing Fact Checked
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We all have that one coworker. Whether they have the opposite personality of yours, always up the drama in already tense situations or seemingly enjoy making passive-aggressive comments, they’re the person who makes you sometimes wonder if you’ve stepped into an episode of "The Office."

As annoying as certain coworkers can be, it’s important to remember that they probably aren’t trying to irritate you, says Lynne Lazaroff, M.S., a training and organizational development consultant with UW Professional & Organization Development (POD) whose clients include Harborview Medical Center and the UW School of Medicine.

“Our immediate reaction is to take things personally, but most of the time it’s not personal,” she says. “And chances are, though we’d never imagine it, our coworkers are tolerating things about us, too.” (Like that time you microwaved leftovers that made the entire office smell like a fish market. Just saying.)

It’s also important to keep in mind that a certain amount of opposition is healthy, even in the workplace. If everyone thought or tackled problems the same way, that would leave little room for innovation, Lazaroff says.

Still, if you find yourself stressing over a situation you feel could be remedied or if the animosity is enough that it’s interfering with your work, here are Lazaroff’s tips for dealing with workplace conflicts.

A few things to keep in mind

First, know that it’s OK to be irritated or think mean things sometimes; it’s only human. Just don’t turn those thoughts into actions. Even if you don’t get along with someone, it’s important to behave professionally and treat them with the respect you would want to receive. And recognize that, at the end of the day, you don’t have to be besties with everyone you work with. As long as you can work together without too many problems, it’s OK if you feel relieved your coworker isn’t also your brunch or book club buddy.

A three-step approach to handling conflict

Lazaroff developed this method for herself but finds it useful when working with clients, too. It can be applied in almost any situation when a coworker frustrates you. It’s an easy way to try to handle conflict yourself without getting anyone’s supervisor involved. The three steps are: recognize, empathize, respond.

1. Recognize. Say a colleague says or does something that makes you want to snap back with something snarky. Instead of responding immediately, take a moment to recognize what you’re feeling and why you may be feeling it. What about their words or actions feels personal to you? Maybe they questioned the quality of a project you spent hours on or talked over you during a meeting you were in charge of. Understand your own reaction to their behavior without expressing it.

2. Empathize. Next, remind yourself that your coworker has a different perspective than you and probably isn’t attacking you personally. Think about what could be causing them to behave this way. Maybe they have a looming deadline they’re afraid they won’t meet or were just assigned a bunch of extra work. Maybe they’re just having a bad day. Remember that no one is perfect and that they may not even realize that what they did offended you.

3. Respond. Once you’ve tapped into both these types of awareness, respond constructively instead of reacting emotionally. Focus on the behavior, not the person. Ask them why they said what they did or ask if they could try not to interrupt you next time since it makes you lose your train of thought. Ask them to explain where they’re coming from because you’re having a hard time following. Doing this opens up a discussion, which is more productive than making an accusation.

An approach for repetitive irritating behaviors

Say you have a colleague who continuously interrupts you, always talks loudly while you’re trying to focus or never follows up on tasks they promise to do. Lazaroff likes to use an approach she calls the feedback frame. It works if you’re confronting a peer or manager or if you’re a manager who wants to encourage your employee to behave differently.

The first step is to state the problem to the person, only using factual information and not being judgmental. Next, identify why it’s a problem and what the negative impact is to you or others at work. Then, ask for the person to change their behavior in a small, specific way and explain why this would be helpful.

Lazaroff likes this approach because it focuses on actions rather than the person as a whole, and it gives people concrete steps to take rather than simply being subjected to someone else’s constructive criticisms.

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How to handle truly difficult or aggressive coworkers

Say you try the three-step approach or feedback frame and things still aren’t getting resolved. Though most people want to get along and be respectful at work, there are always a few who don’t, Lazaroff says. In this case, you have a few options. First, keep trying to confront the coworker on your own. Always comment on their behavior, not them as a person, so as to limit the possibility of an argument. If this still isn’t enough, talk with your supervisor. In extreme cases where someone is being extremely aggressive, demeaning, harassing or is violating a workplace policy, notify your supervisor and get in touch with your human resources department.

A manager’s approach to handling conflict

If you’re a manager or supervisor and notice two of your employees don’t seem to be getting along, here’s a strategy to facilitate discussion. Meet with both employees at the same time. Have one explain what is concerning them, then have the other employee state what their coworker said. Repeat this process, having the second employee explain their concerns and the first employee repeat them. This gives both employees a chance to hear each other out in a controlled environment where they are both being listened to equally, and also gives them an opportunity to try to understand the other person’s perspective.

“It’s not forcing them to agree, but it’s forcing them to understand that there are different yet equally valid points of view,” Lazaroff says.

Then, have both employees help create a plan moving forward that includes changes they will both make to help resolve the problem. Arrange a time in the near future where you all meet again to review whether the changes helped or not. This way, you’re all taking action instead of letting conflict fester and create tension.

The takeaway

Trying to resolve conflicts isn’t always easy, Lazaroff admits, and most of the time it’s a judgment call as to how you should handle the situation. The most important thing is recognizing whether your own productivity or job satisfaction is being affected and then acting accordingly. Everyone deserves to work in a supportive, pleasant environment—and we can all do our part to make that happen.

“Our own success is often dependent on others’ efforts as well as our own,” she says.