5 Common Co-worker Conflicts—and How to Handle Them Like an Expert
Let’s face it: Conflicts with co-workers can be some of the trickiest interpersonal issues to resolve.
Because, unlike with friends, you don’t get to pick your officemates. And, unlike with family, you can’t lean on Mom to referee your arguments.
To make matters even tougher, author Bob Burg says that most people aren’t skilled in the art of persuasion—a key ingredient to putting issues with colleagues to bed.
And that’s precisely why he wrote his latest book, Adversaries Into Allies: Win People Over Without Manipulation or Coercion, which dishes out advice on what it takes to be an effective workplace influencer.
“That means you’re someone who consistently gets the results you want from others in such a way that you’ve made them feel genuinely good about themselves, the situation—and you,” Burg explains.
Turns out that’s a lucrative skill to possess.
“Because you create such positive experiences, people can’t wait to do business with you again,” he adds. “It’s much more profitable, both financially and relationship-wise, to be a master persuader rather than a master manipulator—someone who people can’t get away from fast enough.”
Ready to begin your transformation into the ultimate office influencer?
Check out these five common workplace pickles—and the Burg-approved strategies for handling them like a deftly persuasive pro.
1. You’ve Got the Cube Mate Who Lacks Boundaries
Your inconsiderate co-worker uses speakerphone to discuss everything from meeting recaps with clients to dinner plans with her husband; reads your computer screen over your shoulder; and readily jumps into your conversations without invitation.
The “Control Your Emotions” Influencer Strategy
The key to getting your co-worker to nix those annoying habits hinges on your ability to stay cool. “Otherwise, you’re not in any position to talk to that person in a way that benefits you,” Burg says.
So before approaching your cube-mate, take a deep breath and promise yourself to keep the snarky comments at bay.
Burg stresses the importance of using a friendly, non-accusatory tone, saying something like, “Hey, Mary, I’d love to discuss something with you that might make it a bit easier to enjoy our work environment. I really like being your cube-mate, but I’ve found myself a bit distracted lately with this big project, particularly when you take calls on speakerphone.”
This language is key because it’s friendly—you like her!—and cleverly utilizes an “I” message to describe your distractions and stress, as opposed to her bad habits. And, to keep her from feeling defensive, you’ve focused on just one affront.
Then, follow up with, “When I find myself getting distracted like that, is there a polite way to let you know that something is getting in the way of my work? I just don’t want either of us to feel bad about it if it happens again.”
This way, explains Burg, you’re getting her permission and buy-in to correct the problem in the future. Over the course of time, through continued self-control and kindness, you’re reteaching Mary to do what you want—be a good officemate.
2. You’re Stuck Managing the Office Curmudgeon
As a new project manager, you’ve just been assigned a team that includes a testy employee who’s notorious for picking apart everything from team-building exercises to the office snack selection.
The “Respect Different Belief Systems” Influencer Strategy
Burg says this conundrum is a classic example of conflicting perspectives.
You may never be able to fully understand your employee’s attitude because your belief system—a combination of your upbringing, culture, and experiences—is different. But you can work toward an arrangement that satisfies both of you.
Step one is to draw in your grumpy, non-team player with a compliment, Burg says. Try, “You know, Ed, I’d love to discuss something with you that might make it easier for you to enjoy your work. I can tell you’re a deep thinker, and you have a great ability to challenge the status quo.”
Follow this up with, “Yet, sometimes, I feel as though your thoughts are communicated in a negative way—which is OK, because things aren’t always rosy. But the next time you have a concern, I’d love for you to also offer a solution.”
By framing the situation in this way, you’re showing your colleague that you value his perspective, which can lead to more cooperation and collaboration in the future.
“This builds something that’s very important in business and leadership—trust,” Burg says. “That’s crucial because people will do business, refer business, and allow themselves to be influenced by people they know they can trust.”
3. Your Boss Takes Credit for Your Work
You’ve got great ideas, and your supervisor loves them—so much so that you suspect she’s been playing them up as her own in high-level meetings.
The “Acknowledge Their Ego” Influencer Strategy
“If you hurt someone’s ego when you’re trying to overcome a situation, you’re going to alienate that person by making her sad, mad, or angry,” Burg says. “That’s why the key to getting your boss to see your point of view in this tricky case is to stroke her ego.”
So kick off the conversation with a little old-fashioned flattery, making sure your gratitude is clear before segueing to your concerns. Consider saying, “Jean, I really enjoy working with you. I hope you feel the same way—and that my work and suggestions are important to the team.”
Hopefully, she’ll quickly agree, and you can move on to your next sentence: “And I’m always very happy to know that you present some of my best ideas to others.”
Now that you’ve acknowledged your appreciation for what she does for you, gently bring up your concern with something like, “I sometimes wonder if I’m getting all the proper credit that I should, given my level of participation. What do you think?”
“Without saying, ‘Hey, I think you’re stealing my ideas,’ you’ve asked your boss—in a polite and nonthreatening way—what the deal is. And she can’t let her ego get to her because there wasn’t a real accusation in there,” Burg says.
Now the onus is on your boss to explain where things stand, and it opens the door to a discussion about how those presentations can be handled differently in the future.
4. You Want a Raise From Your Penny-Pinching Manager
You heard that your company’s revenue flat-lined this year—but that doesn’t change the fact that you’re long overdue for a promotion, and you want to broach the topic with your boss.
The “Set the Proper Framework” Influencer Strategy
As a persuader, Burg says it’s your responsibility to diffuse potentially difficult transactions by framing them in a way that’s beneficial for everyone.
“The framework is the foundation from which everything else emanates,” he says. So if you approach someone as your ally, then the situation is likely to play out that way.
Once you’re able to schedule a sit-down, your primary objective is to lay down a rock-solid framework—starting with a statement that acknowledges the company’s current challenges, so your request doesn’t seem obtuse.
Burg suggests language like, “I know budgets are tight this year, but I’d like to talk to you about how we still can work within that to justify a raise.”
After that, present your manager with a quantifiable list, detailing your stellar accomplishments over the last few years.
“Be prepared to show him when, where, and how what you’ve been doing has added to the bottom line, not taken from it,” Burg says, adding that this “I” message framework creates a realistic—not self-indulgent—tone that will endear your manager to your cause.
5. You Need to Rein in an Entitled Newbie
Your fresh-out-of-college assistant wants to skip the less glamorous, everyday tasks she was hired to do—like processing contracts—to jump into high-profile projects above her skill set.
The “Communicate With Tact and Empathy” Influencer Strategy
If you want to connect with colleagues to resolve sensitive situations, Burg says you’ve got to do it skillfully—and with compassion. “If you don’t, that person just becomes defensive and resistant,” he says.
So start by showing your assistant that we’ve all been there, with something along the lines of “Joanne, you know you have so much potential—and you’re going to do great things at this company. I can see how anxious you are to jump in, and that reminds me of myself when I was your age.”
Acknowledging her enthusiasm will put her at ease—as will the empathy that you’ve been in the same spot yourself.
Then continue with, “Right now, we really need you to focus on the duties for your current position, so that you can learn all you need to in order to be an even greater asset—both at this company and later in your career.”
Now you’re tying in her own career and future, and phrasing it in a way that provides increased value to her—a tactic that supports one of Burg’s universal rules for influencers.
“People do things for their reasons—not yours,” Burg says. “So to truly be an effective persuader, you must tie in the other person’s goals, needs, and wants with your desired outcome.”
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