5 Common Workplace Conflicts and Advice to Handle Each One

As much as most of us would rather avoid them, conflicts are almost inevitable in the workplace. One study commissioned by CPP Inc. found that 85% of employees deal with conflict on some level. Even more surprising? 29% of employees say they deal with conflict almost constantly. 

Statistics like those might seem alarming at first glance. But, is this level of friction really that unexpected?

Take a moment to think about it. A standard work team is filled with different personalities, varying approaches to work, and oftentimes incompatible communication styles. That means teams are bound to hit some bumps along the way. 

However, some workplace struggles are more common than others (like the ones we’re digging into here!), and knowing how to deal with them effectively will save employees time—not to mention tons of headaches.

Conflict #1: When you and a colleague both want to be in charge.

Oh, the tried and true hierarchical battle. Of course, a simple org chart clears a lot of this up. 

But, what about when this is more about perception than rank? We’ve likely all witnessed or even experienced those standoffs between two colleagues—when those seemingly dominant personalities are in competition to spearhead a project or call the shots.

That power struggle can quickly sabotage team harmony and progress, unless both sides are willing to compromise.

That’s really your best course of action in this scenario—you need to try to divide the responsibilities as best as you can. Have an honest conversation to find out more about each other’s strengths and interests, so that you can assign duties accordingly. For example, maybe one of you really likes to lead the team meetings, while the other is better suited to coordinate the project schedule and oversee the details.

This level of compromise allows you both to focus on what you’re good at, without any sort of resentment or passive aggression. Plus, you’ll probably surprise yourself with how much you can accomplish when you focus your energy on banding together, rather than taking each other down.  

Here’s What It Looks Like: “I noticed that we both seem to have a passion for this project and are eager to lead. Let’s sit down together to talk about the best way to maximize our time, strengths, and resources.” 

Conflict #2: When you feel a team member isn’t pulling their weight.

Feeling like you’re competing with an over-eager colleague can be frustrating. But, what’s even more irritating is a team member who seems content to ride everybody else’s coattails. This person doesn’t contribute to a shared initiative or project, because they assume the team will carry them across the finish line—something called social loafing

If you’re like most people, your first inclination will be to vent and complain. However, while that stress relief might feel good for a moment, it won’t get you too far. This co-worker might not have a high level of awareness and emotional intelligence to even notice that they’re being complained about. Or, even if they do, they just might not care.

That means you need to address this situation head on by:

  • Clearly highlighting responsibilities and deadlines for the project (put it in writing!)

  • Checking in on progress when necessary

  • Looping in your manager on who’s doing what

Doing this increases accountability, which will hopefully light a fire under that team member. And, by making sure your supervisor is aware of who’s supposed to be contributing what pieces, you amp up that accountability even further and also have someone else in your corner who can help manage those expectations. 

Here’s What It Looks Like: “Since you’re the Excel whiz, we need you to create the graphs for this presentation. I’ve already sent you the data you need, and we need the graphs by the end of the week.” 

Conflict #3: When someone else takes credit for your work.

Maybe you’re in a team meeting, and your teammate doesn’t step up and correct your boss when they offer a compliment that was meant for you. Or, perhaps you were dishing out a suggestion to your colleague and they ran to share it with your boss before you had the chance.

Having somebody slap their own name on your own work is incredibly disheartening, and exactly how you handle this can vary a little depending on the specifics of the situation.

As with most interpersonal conflicts, it’s better to approach the person directly first—as opposed to going right over their head to a supervisor. Calmly explain your view of the situation, and make sure to come prepared with what you think is a solid solution. You don’t want to just show up with complaints, and zero potential fixes. 

Hopefully your colleague will be receptive to your matter-of-fact approach. But, if they refuse to make things right or this becomes a repetitive issue, then it’s time to head to your manager to lay out the details of that dynamic.

Here’s What It Looks Like: “I noticed that you didn’t correct Susan when she mistakenly complimented you on the marketing writeup in this week’s team meeting. I worked really hard on that, and it’s important to me that people know that. Could we go talk to Susan together to clear up any confusion about who did what?”

Conflict #4: When your boss is micromanaging.

Conflicts with co-workers are complicated, but there’s a whole new layer of complexity when you’re not quite meshing with your boss. It’s tempting to think that you just need to grit your teeth and make the best of it. 

But, rest assured that you’re just as entitled to a positive and productive working relationship, so it’s usually best to make your own perspective clear (politely and professionally, of course).

One of the most common supervisor/subordinate conflicts that crops up is when a manager has trouble loosening the reins and is micromanaging every aspect of an employee’s position. 

This constant oversight can breed distrust and negatively impact your engagement in your work. In fact, in a Trinity Solutions survey that was published in the book My Way or the Highway: The Micromanagement Survival Guide, 85% of respondents said that their morale was negatively impacted by being micromanaged. 

If you’re currently dealing with a boss who won’t stop breathing down your neck, schedule some time on their calendar where you can talk through your own expectations and desires with regards to your position.

Resist the urge to point the finger and highlight flaws, and instead explain what type of work environment you thrive in—especially as it relates to your autonomy, independence, and creative control. 

Be ready to talk through some specific changes or plans (for example, instituting a weekly check-in where you can loop in your boss, rather than having them consistently stop by) that will help you feel confident, without your manager feeling left in the dark. 

Here’s What It Looks Like: “I really value your expertise, but I think I do my best work when I have the freedom and flexibility to try to solve problems on my own first. Can we talk about some ways I can have a bit more independence in the office, while still relying on your knowledge and guidance when needed?” 

Conflict #5: When you just don’t get along with somebody.

Maybe there’s really no root to your conflict with this person you work with. Perhaps your personalities just aren’t compatible, and you wouldn’t choose to be around each other if you were given the chance.

It happens. You know by now that some people just don’t get along. 

Fortunately, nobody is saying that you and your colleagues need to be best friends—but you do need to find a way to collaborate effectively during working hours.

When somebody’s personality just grates on you, it’s easy to obsess over every single wrongdoing. Even the smallest ticks or comments are perceived as personal slights that were directed at you.

However, that might not be reality. Resist the temptation to continue churning on your distaste for that person, and instead make your best effort to maintain a positive attitude. That shift in your perception can work wonders on its own, plus it’ll avoid adding fuel to the fire—because you won’t be feeding into any potential drama. 

Collaboration in Spite of Conflict

Love it or hate it, conflict is an inevitability in the workplace. That means you’re going to need to learn how to deal with it in order to get your work done and contribute to a positive team environment.

Of course, there are serious conflicts—like harassment or discrimination, for example—that won’t be solved on your own. In those instances, don’t hesitate to call in reinforcements in the form of company leadership or your HR department.

But, for those smaller, pesky interpersonal issues that threaten to throw you off track, take a deep breath and use the above advice to patch up those disagreements and continue moving forward. Remember, you can’t control what other people do—but you can control how you react to it.

Kat Boogaard

Kat is a Wisconsin-based freelance writer who focuses mainly on careers, productivity, and self-development. She has written content for The Muse, Trello, Atlassian, QuickBooks, Toggl, Wrike, and more. When she manages to escape from her desk, she loves spending time outdoors with her two rescue mutts.

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