Stuck in the Middle of a Conflict at Work?

Workplace conflicts have existed since people began organizing for any common purpose. It’s certainly unpleasant to have a disagreement with a coworker, and it’s very difficult to be in a situation where you’re at odds with your manager or supervisor. While it might not seem like it, it can be equally as stressful to be caught in the middle of a conflict between a person who is above you in the organizational chart, and a coworker. As specific as this sounds, it happens quite a bit. Here are some tips to navigate these waters.

Don’t Take Sides

Let’s assume in this situation that you’ve become a bit of a sounding board for both parties. Hopefully they are bending your ear separately and not arguing with you in the room like a family fighting in a midsize sedan on a vacation. When this happens, your goal is probably to stay neutral, but what happens if it’s clear that one party is in the right and one isn’t? You may be tempted to just state your position and take a side. Sounds reasonable, right? Sorry. It’s not. The reality is that no good can come from you taking sides. If you back up your coworker, your boss will be upset with both of you, which is not the relationship you want to have with someone who wields power over you. If you side with your boss, then your coworker will assume you’re just sucking up and they will look for another ally, and the plot will thicken. 

Stay Solution-Oriented

Managers will often say, “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.” This concept, though not totally without its problems, is sound, and not a bad philosophy to adopt at work. If you consider yourself to be solution-oriented, you are naturally good at coming up with good ideas for compromises and trade-offs. If you land in a boss vs. coworker situation, this is a great way to avoid taking sides while proposing ways to resolve the conflict. Float potential solutions while people are venting to you, just be sure that you are being somewhat consistent so that you don’t create the impression that you’re playing the two against each other.

Shut Down Attacks

This one doesn’t leave any daylight for nuance or gray area. If your boss or coworker is ranting to you about the opposite party, and they cross a line from complaining about legitimate work-related concerns into attacks on their personality, lifestyle, appearance, or personal life, don’t let them go there. Politely but firmly tell them that you’re while happy to hear them out and try to work out the situation, you’re not going to get pulled into personal attacks. This is another case where no good can possibly come from going down that rabbit hole. It may be intimidating to say this to a boss, but if you are being polite and reasonable, they may be taken aback initially, but respect you after it sinks in.

Propose Compromises

You may find yourself in a mediator role if you work in close quarters. While this isn’t a place most people want to be, you may be able to resolve the situation by asking everyone to just get together to work things out. It’s important to state very clearly that you don’t have a side in the dispute, but you have a stake in it as it’s affecting your work environment. It’s appropriate to say how you feel about being in this situation to drive home its impact, just don’t lay it on too thick. Your purpose is to mostly ask questions like “what will it take from (a) to get you (b) to move on?” and then serve as a referee. Be fair and let people talk. Just shut them down if it gets too heated or personal.

Move up the Chain

When all else fails, get HR or the next highest management level employee above your boss to weigh in. If you’ve tried to work with the people involved, this is an appropriate action to ensure a functional workplace.

Related: 6 Ways to Increase Business Efficiency