How To Deal With Common Coworker Conflicts

Whether it’s a simple tiff over dishes in the sink or a productivity-scuttling battle over who has authority over a project, coworker conflicts can contribute massively to office stress.

As with any relationship, conflicts will pop up over time – over miscommunications, misunderstood expectations, personality differences, and a host of other little things. They’re inevitable, but that doesn’t mean they have to poison the work environment.

Basic conflict management relies on the same principles, whether you’re arguing with a coworker or your spouse.

  • Don’t make it personal: Instead of painting the situation as “me versus you,” try to present it as both of you working together to solve a problem. Present your perspective using “I” statements, rather than attacking your coworker with “you” statements.
  • Be specific about the problem: It’s impossible to fix vague disagreements. Instead of arguing that you feel shut out of the project in general, point out that you would prefer to be consulted before your coworker gives status reports that involve you.
  • Listen to your coworker: Conflict resolution needs to be a two-way street. Listen to your coworker’s point of view, then paraphrase it back both to show that you’re making an effort to listen, and to make sure you actually do understand your coworker’s perspective.

Before taking your conflict to those above you, see what you can do to solve it yourself. Many conflicts start as misunderstandings, and can be quickly cleared up with some frank conversation. Skipping this step can lead to hurt feelings and distrust if your coworker learns that you went to your superiors before speaking with him.

Here are a few examples of using these principles to solve common conflicts that arise between coworkers.

Conflicts of boundaries

When working together in a shared space, territorial problems can often rear their heads. Maybe your coworker often uses your desk without permission, or holds distracting conversations on speakerphone. Or maybe he routinely polishes off your yogurt from the fridge, or leaves the common space a mess.

What to do: Unless your coworker is simply a jerk, it’s unlikely he knows his actions are bothering you – so don’t just suffer in silence or assume your coworker is out to get you. When confronting your coworker, keep the focus on your distractions rather than putting him on the defensive.

Say something like, “Sound carries so well here, and I find it hard to get work done when you hold standing meetings in the hallway behind my desk. Is there any way you could take those to the conference room instead?” Stay friendly and position yourself as working with your coworker to solve a mutual problem.

Conflicts of personality

If you’re a cup-half-full person, it can be excruciating to work with someone who always sees the negative. Or perhaps your coworker is regularly irritable, overly arrogant, or competitive. To be successful in your career, you need to learn to work with all kinds of people with minimal conflict.

What to do: Stay professional and try to understand where your coworker is coming from – and how big of a deal her attitude problem actually is. After all, it’s not necessary for coworkers to like each other in order to work together well. Are you simply annoyed by your coworker’s outlook? Or is it getting in the way of work getting done?

Again, try to frame your conversation in such a way that it’s a matter of you both trying to solve a problem, rather than attacking your coworker’s character. Try to highlight positive aspects of her personality, and offer solutions. Try: “I appreciate the insight you’ve brought to our meetings, I can tell you’re really thinking hard about the problem. But sometimes it feels a bit negative. I’d love it if you could offer a solution along with bring the flaws to light.”

Conflicts of work style

You like deadlines, but your coworker’s a free spirit. You let your creativity and energy levels dictate what you work on throughout the day, but your coworker prefers to work precisely down his intricate to do lists. You reread emails with a red pen before you hit send, but your coworker regularly sends in reports awash in comma splices and homophone errors.

What to do: Be self-aware about your own work style before confronting your coworker. Get specific about your expectations and systems, and look for ways that your work styles may overlap. While it may seem that you’re both set in your ways, in reality there’s probably quite a bit of common ground to work from.

Focus on negotiating a solution that works for both of you. If, for example, your coworker routinely procrastinates until the last minute deadline (driving you crazy, since you planned out your week to the minute), maybe you can work together to set smaller, more frequent deadlines. That way your coworker can experience the thrill of barely beating a deadline multiple times a week, and you can rest easy knowing that progress is being made.

Have you ever successfully dealt with a coworker conflict? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments.

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Mark Hammer

I’ve strolled through many a cemetary, and have reached the age where I look in the obits every morning before I look at the comics or sports section. And you know what? I’ve never seen a headstone or obit that said “They were right most of the time”.

In the long run, being right has less value than giving one’s coworkers their dignity when conflicts arise. And if a little of that style rubs off on coworkers with a tendency to be argumentative, that’s a good thing, right?