Practically all of us will run into at least one, and probably several, serious workplace conflicts over the course of our careers. To help you properly handle these inevitable headaches, here are some great tips and advice for dealing with conflict and disputes in the workplace, courtesy of some excellent comments different managers, HR professionals and others have sent to me over the past couple of weeks. Some of these suggestions may only be applicable to managers in a position of authority, while others are applicable in equal coworker-vs-coworker disputes.
Here’s how I’d summarize what everyone has submitted so far (for each point, I’ve also linked to the full comment(s) that advises it):
- Have a real, personalized conversation with the difficult person, and simply ask “What’s on your mind?” This allows them to talk about almost anything, and you can listen to them and figure out what the source of their problem may be (link)
- Treat difficult people as if they are already the person you want them to be (link), and assume the best of the other person (link)
- Everyone should know very clearly what is required of everyone, and what’s acceptable and not acceptable (link)
- Get all the viewpoints biased and non-biased, ask the victim what they want to happen, and apply a fair and just suggestion/disciplinary (link)
- If you’re a manager, give both coworkers a chance to speak to you in private, and let them talk until you have a full sense of what happened. From this, you’ll often find that many disputes are misunderstandings. Then, you can consult a third-party opinion to help you evaluate (link)
- Try to see things from the opposite point of view (link, link). If you’re a manager, you can ask each employee to paraphrase the argument of the other party (link)
- Stay professional at all times (link, link, link), and do not invest yourself emotionally (link)
- Answer only when you’re asked (link)
- A neutral mediator other than HR can help facilitate a discussion and help work toward a resolution (link)
- Document everything you can (link, link, link)
- Focus on proper and clear communication (link)
- Behavior or actions that bother you should be addressed the second time they happen (you can give the benefit of the doubt the first time) – it is better to address these things rather than be silent (link)
- Do not go behind someone’s back and complain to other people about how they are bothering you, before having a polite and professional word with that person first (link)
Since I'm a boss myself I'll have to speak from that point of view. Dealing with difficult employees is never easy. You hope that they might magically get better one day but that's as probable as Google not spying on our data. As a boss, how I deal with my employees is to have a real personalized conversation with them in a professional setting.
I make them feel comfortable and then I ask them one simple question, What's on your mind?. This is such a vague question that they can basically talk about anything and all I do is listen. When you listen to your employees, for a change, you get to realize that there's so much going on with them that you didn't even realize. And once you know the source of the problem you can work with them to fix it.
One thing that managers do quite too often is to let things slide until the final straw. The key to handling difficult employees and resolving disputes is to be on top of the problem from day one. Sit down and have a chat with them and tell them how you feel about their behavior and how it's negatively impacting the company. If they understand, well and good. But if they continue on doing the same thing, then you'll have to take a stricter course of action. One really important thing is to document everything! From their behavior to your meetings with them. Because if worse comes to worst, then this documentation will be a savior.
--Chris Brenchley, Surehand
When dealing with difficult people at work, the best tip I’ve ever received is ‘Treat them as if they are already the person you want them to be.’ This mentality creates a positive energy field which encourages the other person to behave in ways that you wish to see. Because they feel trusted and respected by you.
I once worked with a colleague who was strongly opposed to taking instructions from anyone but his direct line manager. This created a problem for me as the project lead, which later blew up in an argument between us. I was furious and frustrated, hoping that I never had to work with him again. When I had to manage him on another project 5 months later, I was nervous. This time, however, I decided to put aside any prejudice I held against him and treated him like a competent, reliable colleague who was pleasant to work with. I trusted that he would do what he agreed to do and respected his judgment and decision-making capabilities. It turned out he was a pleasure to work with! Not only did we make good progress together on the project, but he also happily took on the parts of the project that I assigned to him plus some ad hoc tasks I needed his help with.
When we are willing to receive others as decent human beings, they are much more likely to behave like one. In that sense, a relationship is just like a mirror. It reflects what you project into it. This is true for personal and professional relationships. When it comes to dealing with conflicts at work, acknowledge the humanness of you and your colleagues. Allow time and space for emotions to flow. And a good understanding of relationship dynamics will go a long way.
--Ellen Tang, Ellen Tang Coaching
Define what is acceptable and not acceptable
One of the best steps to prevent and/or reduce workplace conflict is to cut off assumptions completely and define what is required of everyone.
There should be frameworks that define how authority is disseminated, how issues are raises, how misunderstandings should be communicated and more importantly, a clear job description for all the employees.
By having clear expectations, everyone would know what to do and what to avoid, meaning there will be minimal collisions.
In this way, it would be easier to identify who or what went astray, leading to the fallout, thus, provide an efficient solution to the problem.
--James Jason, Mitrade
Fact finding is the most important thing to do, as with all the information you are able to make an accurate assessment and if required a fair disciplinary or proffered solution.
Ask 3rd parties what they know of the situation to get a non-biased account of the dispute. Then when speaking to the disgruntled employee, ask them what they would like to happen, including the disciplinary action - should it need to happen.
They may be more lax than you think, and if their punitive idea is less severe than what you had in mind, then you're able to offer a just disciplinary decision, safe in the knowledge that the employee agrees with you.
However, that isn't to say you should take their opinion as gospel. It just helps you be aware that if you were to apply a lesser charge you know that they wouldn't be pleased about it.
Too long, didn't read: Get all the viewpoints biased and non-biased, ask the victim what they want to happen, apply a fair and just suggestion/disciplinary.
--Andrew Roderick, Credit Repair Companies
If there's one thing I've learned about resolving disputes as a CEO, it's that you need to get both sides of the story, AND find an objective third opinion. The amount of disputes that ended up being a misunderstanding between two or more coworkers is substantial. You avoid escalating minor issues into major problems when you gain a full scope of what the issue is.
Give each party a chance to talk with you privately. This is a great opportunity to use the power of silence. Once your employee starts talking, let them keep going until you have a full sense of what happened. Sometimes, they'll even come to an understanding themselves simply from talking it out.
Getting a third-party opinion is a crucial step. Ideally this is a senior team member you can consult with on the overall issue. There's always going to be something you missed that another person can pick up on and use to evaluate the situation.
Again - most conflicts turn out to be misunderstandings or can be resolved without drastic measures. It's giving them the chance to feel heard and validated that resolves the problem.
--Shayne Sherman, TechLoris
My #1 tip to handle dispute is to listen and see things from the opposite point of view. Disputes are about different perspectives, and each perspective is valid for the one holding it. A perspective becomes right or wrong only when we get attached to a particular point of view.
We should work together to challenge each other’s assumptions, and distinguish opinions backed by emotions from opinions backed by facts and data.
In every conflict, if we are willing to do the hard work required to navigate through it, we can turn them into an advantage instead of something to be avoided. Conflicts can be the bedrock upon which great successes and deep relationships can be built.
--Sumit Gupta, Deploy Yourself
Be and stay professional. If the conflict is work-related, such as a difference of opinion or a competing idea for managing a task, project, client, or business unit, just present your best case to management and accept the decision. If the conflict is personal, such as an aggressive or disagreeable person who is constantly causing problems for you then become strategic. Stay professional and stay on the high road. Document and retain proof of the transgressions, record the names of witnesses to these acts. Establish a pattern, show the damage, cost and waste of valuable time this person’s behavior is causing and report this information to management or HR; it is ok to say this personally affects your work performance. Do not engage, or openly challenge bullies or people with strong personalities in the workplace; it’s a career killer. If the conflict has an underlying reason that you can manage by wiping the slate clean, making amends or offering an apology then do so. People should go to work to contribute to their company and build their careers, not to spar or compete with fellow employees; the real competition is outside of the company (the other guys who make or sell the same stuff or services your company does). Keep your eyes on the right prize.
--Kenny Trinh, Netbooknews
Sometimes people problems are unresolvable and you have to just make the best of the situation or fire them. Over the last decade some skill sets have been so indispensable that you can't just fire difficult people because they have a very unique skill set that is invaluable to the company and is very hard to replace. Letting them go is sometimes the very last resort.
We had this one employee that was one of the nastiest people when she spoke to you and she would cause all types of conflicts. We tried one on one meeting with her, we tried group meeting, coaching and more. The problems would go away for a while and then another one would surface. Later, we got the few employees together that she had to interact with in a meeting together without the problem employee and they came up with their own solution. We told them we would let the problem employee go but they said no to do that. They came up with their own plan to just get to know the problem employee better and to work on building a better relationship. It worked in that everyone knew what they were dealing with and things calmed down. We never had to fire the problem employee and everyone worked better together.
--Stephen Halasnik, Financing Solutions
My number one (1) tip for handling a dispute at work would be open communication and addressing the problem early before it escalates.
I had a client who had issues with a supervisor. The supervisor assigned all the most challenging and labor-intensive jobs to the client and let the other workers do easier jobs. I suggested that my client have a sit-down with the supervisor and talk the problem out. Come to find out that the reason the supervisor was assigned the most challenging jobs wasn't malicious. Instead, the supervisor trusted my client to do the work and do it well. After the conversation, the supervisor and client left understanding each other better. They went on to have an excellent working relationship.
If you have a dispute with an unreasonable boss or co-worker, you can always present your conflict to Human Resources (HR). Laws that prohibit discrimination in the workplace also prohibit an employer from taking retaliatory action against an employee because they have asserted rights or made complaints under those laws. If you report a dispute related to your race, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, or disability, you're generally protected. These are what we call the protected categories.
However, not every complaint you make is protected. Claims NOT related to your membership in a protected category could still get you in trouble, or worse fired. Most states are at-will employment states, which means you can be fired for any reason, just as long as it's not an unlawful reason. I call this the White Shoes After Labor Day Rule, which means that you can be fired for wearing white shoes after Labor Day, but you can't be fired because of your skin color. To put this into context, you could still be fired for complaining about something other than your membership in a protected category, like your boss's management style or unprofessionalism.
--Micah J. Longo, The Longo Firm, P.A.
There is no need to be an expert in public speaking to know one golden rule of any negotiation:
Answer only when you're asked.
Usually any dispute comes down to the fact that all participants try to resist by interrupting each other. As a result, such communication turns into an attempt to assert itself, emotions obscure the very reason why it all began, and the truth becomes secondary. My tactics are not new or unique. Many smart books have been written about it, but for some reason people ignore it.
Answering only when asked is a great opportunity:
- to be heard;
- to emphasize your authority;
- to make everyone pay attention to your opinion;
- prove yourself as a level-headed person.
People who know how to behave when they argue give the impression of being intelligent; other people subconsciously feel drawn to this person.
Another option for resolving the dispute is to suggest returning to the discussion later when emotions have calmed down. It would be good to involve an independent third party in the dispute as well, which could be an outside, emotionally uninvolved observer. Or he/she could be a more professional expert on the issue under discussion.
It is also useful to be more conscious and to refer to facts that can strengthen each participant's position. What is the point of arguing if there are no facts? In general, any dispute is very energy consuming. Think about whether you need to argue, or is it enough that you are confident in your position?
--Tatiana Gavrilina, DDI Development
The first thing is to ask each participant in a dispute if they can paraphrase the argument of the other party. If they can accurately paraphrase the other person's perspective, then I know that at least one party has been listening and understands. If the other person cannot accurately convey the essence of the dispute, then I can conclude that at least one party is not listening effectively.
The second thing I do is to ask each participant to rate how critical this issue is to the survival of our business or the person's ability to do his/her job on a 0-10 scale. 0 means no impact and 10 means total and immediate death).
The act is asking for an ordinal perspective to what is often a binary (win/lose; right/wrong) dispute can reduce some of the tension.
--Laurence J. Stybel, Ed.D., Stybel Peabody Associates, Inc.
The key to handling a workplace dispute is to address the problem immediately before it has a chance to escalate. In my experience, when employees have disagreements, they need to sit down with an unbiased third party to hash out the dispute and reach a resolution.
I once had a couple members of my team who struggled to communicate, and every time they worked on a project together they would inevitably get into an argument. The situation was spreading negativity to other team members and becoming a real issue. They eventually sat down with a member of HR to talk through their disagreements and get to the heart of the issue.
The discussion helped give both parties a chance to voice their opinion and see the situation from a different perspective. Although they might never be the closest of friends, they were still able to diffuse the tension and reach a level of understanding and respect.
--Monica Eaton-Cardone, Chargebacks911
Workplace disputes always benefit from having a trusted neutral party to help facilitate a discussion and help them work toward resolution. This is especially true when the dispute is between the employee and their boss.
Quite often HR tries to fill this role, but they are not neutral. The employee knows this and feels vulnerable, and as a result, any intervention by HR is less likely to be successful.
In large organizations an ombud will be the neutral facilitator. An ombud typically doesn't report to HR, so both parties can trust that the details of their dispute will not impact their jobs. As a result they can have meaningful discussions and negotiations.
Smaller organizations use mediators to fill this role. The mediator helps them better understand each other, coaches them around handling conflict productively, and helps them come to an agreement that will help them work together more effectively.
--Erik Wheeler, Accord Mediation
Option 1 - Approach them directly in a non-threatening way. Perhaps it is in a weekly one-on-one that is already schedules, request to go out to lunch, or have a video call with the current remote situation. Taking the approach of I feel, I hear, etc, using your own feelings or beliefs rather than you do this, is always better. Using terms like help me understand what I can do better or was this a result of something I did, will allow for an honest conversation as there could be an underlying issue.
Option 2 - If you are concerned about approaching them directly, consider speaking to HR about the matter. They may have more insight and may be able to assist with the resolution. For example, they may know that the boss is working with an executive coach, or has ongoing challenges with the leadership team. They will want to know what is happening and may need to loop others in depending on the situation.
In short, direct, honest feedback is the best way to approach. Often people will get defensive so it is appropriate to let someone think about the conversation for a day or two afterwards to let the information process. We typically find that after some reflects, they have a different outlook.
--Krysta James, The Verity Group, LLC
My number 1 tip for handing a dispute in the workplace is to assume the best of the other person. For example, you write a draft report and a colleague keeps asking for multiple changes while the deadline gets closer and closer. In this situation, I aim to assume the best by thinking “the other person is simply pushing me to create a high-quality report,” rather than assuming anything negative.
Based on that assumption, I say something like this to the other person: “You have asked for quite a few changes to the report. The deadline to submit this is 2 hours away. Can you help me prioritize the changes that you think would be the most important to include?”
--Bruce Harpham, SaaS Marketing Consultant
If you have a dispute in the workplace, the best way to handle it is to stay objective and not invest yourself emotionally. If there’s a dispute in my organization, here’s how I handle it.
First, I talk to everyone involved one-on-one to hear their version of the story. I want to hear what they think caused the conflict in the first place. Then I invite everyone involved to sit and discuss the problem together, when hopefully things don’t escalate.
Then I distance myself from the situation and make a decision on my own. Usually, it’s nothing tragic and too difficult to cope with. However, making a decision that makes everyone happy is impossible, so as the manager, you have to realize that you’re going to make someone unhappy.
--Stefan Smulders, Expandi
I've found that the best way to handle interpersonal conflicts is to talk directly about it sensibly and only professionally.
For example, I had several issues with a supervisor, and when these issues occurred, I would tell him directly. He was making nonsense mistakes with guests and our systems that created more work - amongst other issues. I discussed these issues several times, and when nothing changed, I took it to my manager. He then discussed the issue with the supervisor, but there was still no progress. It got to the point where nothing was helping so and talked to both of them about the issues when they occurred I also wrote them down, every time something went wrong I kept a detailed account with the date for each occurrence. After months of issues, I brought the problems to my General Manager, who then had a lengthy discussion with the supervisor, and the issue was resolve after that.
The main thing is to keep it professional and between the people who need to be involved. If there's an issue and you're badmouthing someone to other coworkers, it's going to lessen the complaint's validity and make you look bad.
--CJ Xia, Boster Biological Technology
Be and stay professional. If the conflict is work-related, such as a difference of opinion or a competing idea for managing a task, project, client, or business unit, just present your best case to management and accept the decision. If the conflict is personal, such as an aggressive or disagreeable person who is constantly causing problems for you, then become strategic. Stay professional and stay on the high road. Document and retain proof of the transgressions, record the names of witnesses to these acts.
Establish a pattern, show the damage, cost and waste of valuable time this person’s behavior is causing and report this information to management or HR; it is good to say this personally affects your work performance. Do not engage, compete, or openly challenge bullies or people with strong personalities in the workplace; it’s a career killer.
If the conflict has an underlying reason that you can manage by wiping the slate clean, making amends, or offering an apology, then do so. People should go to work to contribute to their company and build their careers, not to spar or compete with fellow employees; the real competition is outside of the company (the other guys who make or sell the same stuff or services your company does). Keep your eyes on the right prize.
--Shawn Lockery, InVivo Biosystems
I recommend putting yourself in the shoes of all the concerned parties. Then, you can react accordingly when you empathically connect with their emotions. Emotional intelligence is the most critical skill in the workplace because disputes undoubtedly occur in an organization. Aside from being a helpful trait for working with large numbers, having a sound and stable emotional intelligence helps people handle disputes fairly. When employees know how to understand their coworkers on an emotional level, work progresses smoother because they can adapt according to the situation. Otherwise, fights and misunderstanding deter the team from accomplishing tasks efficiently.
--Max Harland, Dentaly
If the dispute is involving myself, I would make sure to document the situation or keep all of the emails related to an incident. This would help me in case I am accused of something that I have not done or mistakenly done. This would be shared with HR to help them mediate the situation. Once, I had to share with HR emails which I was cc'd on between my supervisor and another person. This is why it's important to keep all of your emails and document information if an incident occurs. If an incident occurs in person or over the phone, write down the date and time and describe what happened. Make sure to do it right away so you don't forget any details. Also, make sure to share this with your supervisor or HR as soon as possible so the situation gets resolved in a timely manner.
If there is an issue with communication, then I would try and talk to the person directly but with a mediator like a supervisor involved to make sure that we reduce miscommunication and figure out a solution respectfully. If I make a mistake or do something wrong, I make sure to apologize. I also encourage my co-workers to let me know if they have questions or if they have concerns so I can correct my mistakes or clarify issues. However, there are times that people have held grudges against me and I don't hear about it until it gets to my supervisor. When that happens, I still apologize but communicate to the person to please let me know if they have a problem with me or I've done something wrong as soon as possible so I can correct it right away.
--Cherry Lacsina, Its All Cherry
The best way to handle conflict is by having clear communication. I remember a time when one of my employees was being rude to his colleagues. He acted like a boss whenever I'm not around. One day, I got back earlier than expected and caught him. So I talked to him privately and tried to understand what was going on. I listened without judging. After our conversation, his behavior improved. Now he's in good terms with everyone on the team, even when I'm not around.
The key is always to have proper and clear communication. With this, you'll get to understand each other more. Talking with your employees privately can help them do an excellent job too. Most importantly, treat your employees fairly so they will feel valued.
--Dennis Bell, Byblos Coffee
I challenge employees to avoid the temptation to let it go. Oftentimes, people let it go out of fear of conflict. By fear, I mean fear that the work environment will become uncomfortable due to grudges or that one of the parties will blow up. But here's the thing: the person who is letting it go is ALREADY uncomfortable. Why not nip this in the bud? This being said, nobody wants to spend their time fighting every battle; thus, I believe in the Rule of 2. If you have an issue with someone with whom you regularly interact, that person only gets one pass per offense type. The first time something happens, you could give them the benefit of the doubt and hope it's a one-time thing. Maybe you assume positive intent or attribute the behavior obliviousness. But the second time it happens, the situation must be addressed to prevent that behavior from becoming a norm. At the second offense, the victim is complicit in his/her/their treatment. Silence is akin to granting permission or telling that person that the behavior doesn't really bother you. Commit to addressing disputes and conflicts is my number one tip because none of the other suggestions that I'd make matter when someone won't speak up.
--Mylena Sutton, voltagevista.com
Do not allow Triangulation
Triangulation happens when a person has a problem with one person, but he goes to other people to discuss the matter. It not only wastes other’s time but also creates a negative image of the person with whom he has a conflict.
Being the HR manager, I ensure that my people have enough courage to go directly to the same person they have an issue with and resolve the matter themselves. If still, the case exists, then they can bring in the third party that does not take the side of the two persons but focus on the matter and its solution. If it’s beyond everyone’s access, then I take the actions as per the company policy and guide them in what direction to move.
I believe triangulation destroys the relationship between co-workers and hurts the company dearly. So. both the parties involved in the conflict should either resolve the matter themselves or look for the company’s policy and follow protocols.
--Rolf Bax, resume.io
I think it’s first important to think about what “unreasonable” means.. I’ve found that most people definitely have a reason for their anger or frustration. So, my first attempt is just communication. Deal with an upset coworker the same way you deal with an upset customer. Listen to what they’re saying. Maybe something has just been lost in translation. Show that you’re listening by repeating back their issue calmly.
If another worker is involved, do the same for them. As a leader, it’s sometimes helpful to moderate and mitigate these situations if you’re not sure all involved parties will listen and show compassion to one another.
If two co-workers simply cannot work together for personal reasons, you can consider separating them but that’s not always possible for a team. Unfortunately, not being able to work with others is a huge red flag and can be the reason for termination in a lot of situations. I always want to make sure that we’ve done everything we can to give everyone a chance to say their part and work it out before it gets that far, though.
--Camille Chulick, Averr Aglow
My number one tip is to document everything once you recognize you are dealing with someone who is unreasonable. This is because if the person you are dealing with shows signs of narcissism or psychopathy, they will try to use your word against theirs and “play the victim.” It is always best to have documentation to at least validate yourself even if HR or upper management does not believe you.
When a toxic family member infiltrated my workplace, committed an illegal act against me, and turned my own HR department against me, I had to leave. I am glad that I documented everything because my manager at the time later claimed that she had “no idea” why I left so soon although she was on the entire e-mail thread where HR accused me of “bringing conflict into the workplace.” This was proof that I was dealing with a toxic personality the whole time. Documentation does not lie—and be armed and ready with it in any dispute.
--Mari Verano, mariverano.com
I always recommend (and do this myself) writing out the issue(s) on paper, then go back and remove all of the personal bias and emotion from it, and add in some possible solutions. This allows one to more clearly suss out the root of the problem. Now go back and draft out an approach to directly work with that boss or coworker to communicate and work towards a solution. Too often we let our personal bias and emotions fuel a situation that could easily be course-corrected with a little effort and caring enough to communicate directly with the other person. Understanding their perspective is important to truly map out a way to resolve the situation at hand. If after your direct, professional, and respectful approach there is no resolve, pull in your manager or HR to assist in continuing the conversation. Most of the disputes are easily resolved once there is mutual conversation and understanding. Approaching the problem from this perspective also continues to build trust and respect in the professional relationship.
Personal Experience: Many years ago, in a previous work environment, a branch manager had an issue where, instead of picking up the phone to discuss, they began a series of email chains that turned into a slow-motion train wreck. I, of course, boarded the train and did not try to stop it at the next station. What ensued in the written conversation was a series of aggressive attacks on me professionally that had total disregard for the actual issue at hand and carried a high potential for legal action against the company. Eventually, the VPs were pulled in, we all dialed into a call, discussed the issue, formulated a plan, and worked towards a solution. I learned quickly the importance of picking the right form of communication and when to pick up the phone vs written communication.
We both learned how damaging written communication can be as the aggressive attacks were hard for me to look away from as they were staring me in the face from an impersonal computer screen. However, as we develop and mature, I can look back now and read the attacks as ‘emotion’ (which still doesn’t excuse the behavior) vs my professional competency. That experience guided me to leave my emotions and biases at the door when supporting any of our internal teams here at Fracture. Without self-reflection upon past experiences, good or bad, we will not continue to mature and evolve in our own positions -- that's become one of my favorite mantras.
--Karen Oakey, The Content Factory
There are a few basic steps I would take to handling a dispute in the workplace and any difficult employees. Every situation is obviously unique, but I think these basic steps will help you navigate what to do.
(1) Document Everything. As a business owner or member of the HR team, you should be documenting everything that is happening. Write down everything, have employees offer their experience, and have all information accessible.
(2) Listen. This should be very basic but give difficult employees time to vent and talk about why they are behaving the way they are. Set them down, take them for a coffee, and really give them the time to talk.
(3) Ask This One Question. After you really listen, you need to ask this one question: “What can we do to resolve this?”
This one question can lead to finding a resolution and solving so many problems. Listen to their answer to this question, document it, and put it into effect (as long as it fits with company protocol).
If problems persist, you will know that you acted fairly in the beginning and you gave this employee (or employees) a chance to work out this dispute.
--Jim Sullivan, JCSI
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