What to do when conflicts at work happen

Conflicts at work happen, especially in teams. But we’re not always part of the conflict—sometimes we get stuck in the middle of a conflict between other people. In that situation, what are we supposed to do? In your personal life, it might be best to not get involved. But in the workplace, where a project or team morale may suffer as a result of the conflict, there are times when it’s a good idea to help resolve the situation.

A friend of mine, Annie, was recently working on a side project with two friends, Ben and Mark (names have been changed). They won a hackathon and were contracted to complete the project. But soon, problems started to emerge. Mark had a full-time job, and Ben assumed that he wouldn’t want to spend too much time working on the project, so he took over some of Mark’s work. Mark wasn’t very happy about that—he wanted to contribute to the project. But instead of talking about it, they let this misunderstanding fester. And they both started complaining to Annie about the other.

Annie tried to stay neutral and not get involved. She refused to relay messages between the two and didn’t take any other action for some time. They continued to have problems with each other—with Mark feeling left out of the project, and Ben having no idea of Mark’s feelings. This was the kind of problem that could easily be fixed if Mark and Ben just talked to each other, since the root of the problem was that Ben was trying to be nice and take work off of Mark’s plate.

When we get stuck in the middle of a conflict between other people at work, what are we supposed to do?

The issue started affecting the development of the project, and the emotional toll of the conflict began to hit Annie. Managing Mark and Ben’s emotions was draining. Eventually, Annie had to sit them both down and get them to talk it out. Soon, the conflict was resolved, as it had grown out of a simple misunderstanding. The project was completed and delivered.

But Annie wasn’t happy with how she handled the situation. In her mind, she put off conflict resolution for far too long and it negatively affected the development of the project (and caused a lot of unneeded stress for all of them). Looking back, she thinks she should have been more assertive and stepped in much sooner. She had thought about it multiple times, but wanted to let them work it out on their own.

It’s tricky, because it’s hard to know when it’s the right time to get involved in a conflict between two colleagues. It’s easy to feel like it’s not your problem. But sometimes at work we have to step up and take charge of problems that aren’t directly ours, for the sake of the greater good. And especially if it’s negatively affecting your team’s work.

There are a few lessons to learn from this story about when and how to get involved in conflicts at work involving other people:

Embrace your role

Sure, it may not feel like any of your business to resolve conflicts between other people. But if you can help improve the situation, step in. Part of being a team player—and learning how to be a good leader—is doing things outside of your job description for the benefit of the team, the project, and the company.

It’s so easy to say, this is not my problem and walk away. And sometimes that is the best decision. But in the long run, if you can help resolve an issue, it’s much easier to do so immediately, before morale takes a dip and work suffers. We already take on so much at work. There’s no reason to make things harder by saying, “not my problem.” If you can help, help. Your teammates (and your boss) will appreciate it.

Be assertive

For some people it’s easy to pick up on conflicts between others. Use this to your advantage. Be assertive and speak up. Especially if the conflict is the cause of a misunderstanding. The third, outside person has a perspective that the people involved in the conflict don’t have, and often, just speaking up about the misunderstanding can go a long way in helping resolve it.

Annie knew the cause of the conflict, but didn’t speak up. If she had been more assertive from the beginning about what she noticed, the entire conflict could have been resolved much sooner, with no hurt feelings.

Letting problems fester isn’t good for anyone on the team, and in a larger team, it can be divisive as people begin to take sides. No one wants to be stuck in the middle of a conflict, but no one wants to work in a negative environment, either. If you can help, do it.

Be observant and step in to help when you think you can make a difference. Don’t butt in where you don’t belong, but trust your instincts. If you can help simply by speaking up, you’ll save everyone on your team a lot of trouble.

Encourage “I feel” statements

When you do step in to help, here’s what you do: encourage your teammates to frame their thoughts in “I feel” statements. This validates people’s feelings and emotions while laying out the conflict without making the other person feel defensive. An example would be: “I feel hurt when you interrupt me, like I have nothing to contribute to the conversation.”

It’s easy to argue about something you may or may not have done, but it’s hard to argue with how you make people feel.

It’s easy to argue about something you may or may not have done, but it’s hard to argue with how you make people feel. “I feel” statements frame the conflict without assigning blame to any party, making it easier for the second person to hear and understand what the first is saying.

Be as specific as possible when using “I feel” statements. And don’t attack or blame the other person—you’re not really talking about them, you’re talking about yourself, about how you feel. If the other person is reasonable, they will empathize and understand, and you’ll be able to move forward.

It’s frustrating to get caught in the middle of a conflict, but sometimes it can’t be avoided. If a conflict between others is affecting your work environment, consider stepping in if you think you can help. You’ll save everyone on the team a lot of stress and headache by doing so. And when we go out of our way at work, people notice. People appreciate it. And work moves forward.

Jessie Wood is a writer based in San Francisco, California. 

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