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Five Steps To Resolve Work Conflicts Before They Get Personal

Here’s a foolproof method for clearing up miscommunications without anyone losing their cool.

Five Steps To Resolve Work Conflicts Before They Get Personal
[Photo: MangoStar_Studio/iStock]

Not getting along with a coworker? Disagree with your team about the direction a project is heading? Chances are it’s not personal, even if it feels like it. But there’s a real risk that it’ll get personal if you aren’t careful.

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At the root of many of these issues is a simple, common problem: miscommunication. At work as in life, it comes in many forms. A conflict might be be accidental–for instance, assuming everyone is on the same page without confirming–or intentional, like deliberately withholding crucial information from others. It’s also possible to be conscious or unconscious of the degree to which you’re miscommunicating and the consequences it will have. But no matter the origin, these situations can quickly throw teams out of sync.

When that happens, one of the most common mistakes is to downplay the issue and assume whatever misunderstandings might have bubbled up will just go away. But the reality is that ignoring a misalignment is only likely to worsen it, leaving room for emotions to come into play. Here’s what it takes to get everyone back on the same page.

Step 1: Identify The Root Cause

Your coworker keeps brushing off your weekly check-in, and you suspect it’s no longer a priority for her. Your direct report isn’t coming to you for advice. Your team moved forward in a new direction before you had a chance to give your input. Could it be your fault? Could it be theirs?

Don’t try to answer those questions directly–all  you’ll be able to do is make assumptions. Instead, think back to the moment when expectations were set, whether implicitly or explicitly. Maybe it was a meeting when your manager laid out instructions, or perhaps it was a couple weeks ago when your team simply set to work, assuming everyone knew the game plan. Whatever the case, try to identify any early miscommunications or mistaken premises.

Look for gaps in your or your team’s process. And consider whether outside circumstances, such as life events, may be part of the equation. Most of us bring our whole selves to work–including stress from our personal lives. So try to widen the lens and look as objectively as you can at what might have initially caused things to tilt off course.

Step 2: Acknowledge The Situation

Talk to your team or teammate about the problem you’re noticing. Whether you’re on the receiving end of the issue or causing it yourself, it’s your responsibility to speak up now that you’ve identified the conflict.

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It’s typically best to talk directly to the people concerned. Don’t hand off the bad news to your manager and walk away. You can certainly loop in your boss for help, but do so without shirking responsibilities. This may be uncomfortable, but showing that maturity will help you find a good resolution. It signals to your team that you’re capable of difficult conversations and feedback.

When it’s time to discuss the misalignment, be as objective as possible about what you’re noticing, without projecting an interpretation for their behavior onto them. Let your counterparts share their perspective, too. Doing that ensures you’ll reach a shared acknowledgment of how the situation could be better, rather than turning it into a blame game. Not sure how to broach the subject without seeming like a Debbie Downer? Positioning the conversation as a “retrospective” or “check-in,” for instance, kicks off the conversation in the spirit of improvement, not blame.

Step 3: Brainstorm Ways To Improve As A Team

You’ve identified what went wrong, both as a team and as an individual. And you’ve opened up a discussion about how to fix things. Bravo! Now it’s time to think through your options for solving it: What could be better? What actionable ideas can you come up with as a team?

Brainstorm as creatively as you can, and make sure everyone whom the issue affects has a chance to make a recommendation. You really do want to hear everybody’s suggestions, no matter how impractical–even if it means doing something you’d otherwise consider a communication “bad habit,” like cc’ing a stakeholder on every single email. Think blue skies, and build on each other’s ideas to help everyone feel heard. When you’re working through an area of conflict that affects a whole team, considering even impractical recommendations can give more weight to that stakeholder’s concerns. At this stage, that’s important.

Step 4: Commit To Changing At Least One Thing

As a group, select one to three action items that you can all get on board with. But cap it at three; however well-intentioned, you aren’t here for a major overhaul and don’t want to plan for more changes than you can realistically implement. On the other hand, walking away without agreeing to at least one change guarantees that you’ll be back in the same predicament before long.

By this point, the changes you’re planning to make should be process-related, rather than personal: “Let’s have everyone give their okay on Slack before moving forward next time,” rather than, “So-and-so needs to be a better team player.” Prototype the action items you’re committing to, and plan on how you’ll measure whether they’re reducing miscommunication in the future.

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Step 5: Move On Within 24 Hours

You get one day to be annoyed. Then it’s time to move on. For the sake of the business and the team’s sanity, everyone needs to quickly get on board with each other again. Does this mean your trust buckets will be fully replenished instantaneously? Depending on how severe the misalignment, maybe not. But it’s important for everyone involved to give each other the benefit of the doubt. Chalk it up to miscommunication, and resolve to do better next time.

About the author

Ximena Vengoechea is a design researcher, writer, and illustrator whose work on personal and professional development has been published in Inc., Newsweek, and the Huffington Post. She currently works at Pinterest as a qualitative researcher.

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