- What should I do if I’m concerned about my working relationship with a co-worker?
- What if my conflict is with my supervisor?
- What if I lack the confidence to approach the other person directly?
- What if the direct approach is unsuccessful or the situation has already escalated?
- What if the conflict leads to angry, threatening behaviour?
The following section provides guidelines for managing workplace conflict. Further information on many of the topics touched on in this section can be found throughout the site.
People often respond with whatever behaviour they have used in the past in conflict situations, such as:
- arguing, with loud voices and aggressive body language,
- avoiding contact with the other person as much as possible,
- excusing the conflict as resulting from the other person being under stress, or as an isolated incident that will not be repeated,
- not wanting to “make a big deal out of it” and pretending that it never happened.
These responses can set the stage for this colleague’s future actions to be viewed in a negative light – e.g. “there s/he goes again”.
When the issue is important to you or the working relationship is important to you, it is recommended that you talk about the problem with the other person as quickly as possible. This practice is not “making a big deal” of the issue but effective conflict management.
Talking to the other person is respectful, as it:
- gives the other person a chance to explain themselves, or
- gives the other person a chance to apologize,
- gives both of you an opportunity to better understand each other’s views on the working relationship, and
- allows you to negotiate ways of working together that work for both of you.
Direct Discussion - Tips for Approaching a Co-Worker will be helpful in preparing to have a face to face discussion about the working relationship. Why We Avoid Dealing with Conflict provides information on the barriers to direct dialogue. Conflict Styles will assist you in identifying the response that is most appropriate in a specific situation.
When the conflict is with a supervisor there is a power differential that may influence how a conflict can be approached. If you are in a subordinate position within the institutional structure you may fear retribution or mistreatment if the discussion does not go well. If issues cannot be resolved through direct and open discussion then it is recommended that you request assistance from a supervisor at a higher administrative level within your faculty, the Human Resources Office, the Human Rights and Respectful Workplace Office or your union (where applicable).
You may be able to reduce conflict by making sure that you communicate effectively with him or her about your work. Make sure that you keep your supervisor informed about your work activities and any issues that may arise. In addition, you should feel free to make sure you understand the expectations of your supervisor. Ask if things do not seem clear, and review expectations to make sure both you and your supervisor are in agreement.ii
Approaching a person sincerely, with a real willingness to hear what the problems are from their perspective, are the key ingredients. If you can do that – you can begin to address the situation yourself. While your first attempts may feel awkward and difficult, with practice, like with any new skill, you will gain confidence and expertise.
Coaching from others can also be helpful. Coaching can be requested from a number of resources:
- the Employee and Family Assistance Program,
- the Human Rights Advisor,
- a supervisor,
- a trusted friend or colleague who you think handles conflict well.
A proactive approach would be to enroll in a basic conflict resolution course before the need arises as part of your professional development plan.
When necessary, a meeting with a co-worker and a neutral third person to assist can be requested. A neutral, third party can assist both of you in having a productive discussion. A supervisor, a colleague or co-worker that you both trust, a union steward (when you are both members of the same union), a Human Resources Assistant or the Human Rights Advisor may be able to serve as a neutral third party to assist in the resolution of the concern
As out-of-control conflict has a negative impact on individuals and on the workplace it is important to ask for assistance. Assistance from a supervisor, department chair or dean may be appropriate as well as a union steward. The Human Rights Advisor will also work with employees and supervisors to resolve workplace disputes. In very serious situations a conflict resolution specialist external to the institution can be brought in to assist in restoring working relationships. Consult the Institutional Resources section for more information.
Yelling, name-calling or threatening outbursts should not be tolerated in any workplace. If a co-worker displays this kind of behaviour a report to a supervisor and to the Environmental Health and Safety Office should be made immediately so that a quick response can occur. While we encourage employees to address workplace conflict on their own whenever possible, the behaviours described above are symptoms of conflict that has become dangerously escalated and that require direct intervention.