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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

How to Solve an Office Conflict (Without Relying on HR to Do All Your Dirty Work)

If you start to feel your heart race and your stomach drop when you even think about confronting a co-worker, I get it. Conflict is no fun—and in office cultures where we’re encouraged to collaborate closely together, respect each other, and even become friends, confrontation might seem like the last thing you should do. So it’s no surprise that when an issue that needs to be addressed comes up, folks often prefer to dump their problems on HR and run.

But here’s the thing about HR professionals—when we’re doing our jobs right, we’re working ourselves out of a job. Instead of cleaning up others’ messes, we want to empower everyone at our company to be able to work through their own problems. Not because it’s less work for us, but because nine times out of 10, it’s more effective. When you’re the one dealing with a situation firsthand, you have a better idea of how it can be fixed.

Inspired to take matters into your own hands, but not quite sure where to start? Check out the tips below.

1. Review Your Options

There’s an endless number of ways you can address conflict: a quick chat, a mediation session, an office-wide meeting—the list goes on. All of these are effective in their own ways, but that doesn’t mean they’re interchangeable. The approach that will work best for you will depend on your circumstances.

To figure out what action you should take, ask yourself a few questions first:

  • How many people are involved in the situation? Is there one co-worker in particular you need to address, or are there multiple?
  • How frequently has this happened? Was it a one-off mistake, or is a pattern emerging?
  • How serious is the conflict at hand? Is it a careless but relatively small error, or something more severe?

If you’re dealing with a minor offense involving only one person (say, a condescending comment or a lie), you may want to opt to pull him or her aside for a quick, casual five- to 10-minute chat. If you need to communicate to a larger group, however, speaking to your boss about sending out an office memo or setting up a team meeting may be the most appropriate. For persistent, ongoing issues between two or more people, a sit-down mediation is a great way to dig deep into what’s going on and reach a mutual solution.

No matter what you end up choosing, though, make sure to approach the conversation with a level head, open mind, and positive attitude.

2. Pump Yourself Up

Often, the most difficult thing about confrontation is gathering up the courage to do it. If this sounds like you, make sure to take some time in advance to mentally prepare. This can involve anything from practicing with a colleague or friend to writing down your talking points.

It’s also helpful to remind yourself why you’re doing this in the first place. One thing I like to remind folks is that conflict—both inside the office and out—is inevitable. You might be tempted to duck out this time, but there will come a point in your life wheen you can’t avoid it. And the sooner you can learn to tackle it head on, the sooner you’ll be able to get what you want and need out of your professional and personal lives.

It’s also worth noting that conflict is a natural byproduct of working with others. Any time you get more than one person in a room, you’ll have opposing ideas and points of view. Sure, it can be uncomfortable at times, but the alternative is withdrawing from your co-workers completely. Is that really the experience you want? For most people, it’s not.

At the root of a lot of conflict avoidance is a fear that you’ll be upsetting or insulting the person you speak with, but remember: If you don’t bring up an issue that needs to be addressed, you’re denying your co-worker a chance to grow. When you think of it that way, it’s easier to accept that confrontation is the best option for everyone.

This is a major theme of a book on conflict resolution called Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. If you’re particularly conflict-averse, it’s more than worth a read. (And if you don’t have time for a whole book, this article on professionally confronting your co-worker is a good option. Plus, it comes with an example conversation.)

3. But After All That, Don’t Be Afraid to Ask HR for Help

Don’t get me wrong: While you don’t want to rely on HR to do all of the work for you, you shouldn’t be afraid to reach out to them for help. And you should always, always reach out to HR in the case of severe offenses, like harassment or bullying. When the safety and comfort of you or your co-workers is at stake, looking out for your well-being comes first—and human resources has the experience and training necessary to handle situations like these.

But even with minor issues, there are a ton of ways that the HR team can help. (While still ensuring that you take an active role.) In the past, I’ve done everything from roleplaying a difficult conversation to moderating a mediation, leading a group meeting, and more. Whatever situation you find yourself in, I’d bet that your company’s encountered it before and has some insight to share.

I know how intimidating and unpleasant conflict can be. If I had to choose between letting an employee know he or she was getting promoted or having to sit down and tell somebody that his or her performance has been lagging, believe me, I’d choose the former every time. But conflict is unavoidable, and even more importantly, necessary. And when you take ownership of the situation yourself, rather than making HR do all the heavy lifting, you’ll end up with a more calm, productive, and cohesive working environment than ever—all while feeling like the strong, empowered employee you know you can be.

Photo of co-workers courtesy of Hero Images/Getty Images.