Over my 20+ years in human resources I’ve often joked that HR ends up playing the role of “chief problem solver.”

Employees come to HR with the expectation that someone will intercede on their behalf, relieving them of the burden to directly engage with workplace conflict.

Someone else solving your problem sounds great, right? Often, it’s not though. Involving HR can be destructive, permanently damaging relationships by needlessly escalating a minor issue when a direct conversation would have done the trick.

I get it. Going to a colleague directly about a problem is hard and uncomfortable, especially if you have a conflict-avoidant personality. But if you care enough about the situation to go to HR or a manager, then you need to care enough to approach the person directly first. With good intent, clear communication and follow through, it can actually strengthen your relationship and build higher levels of trust between colleagues. The right communication tools can help you get there.

Here are my tips for constructively addressing workplace conflict between coworkers and building a culture of accountability:

Check Your Facts

Before you approach a colleague, you want to be 100 percent certain that your facts and/or assumptions are correct. Everyone sees the world from a personal lens that is colored by our experiences and biases. For example, if you plan to address behaviors that you believe are causing performance issues, start by clarifying the facts with your colleague. “I believe I saw X” or “I believe Y occurred” will get you both on the same page before diving into the conversation.

Don’t Provide an Out

Because conflict is uncomfortable, it’s natural to soften your feedback by building in excuses on the front end of the conversation. For example, “I know you’re understaffed so I understand why things might slip through the cracks, but you still….” Everything before the “but” clouds the feedback. You’ve given the person an opportunity to blame external forces instead of taking responsibility. Focus on the issue at hand.

Back Away if Necessary

Even when it’s hard to hear, receiving feedback means that someone is invested in your improvement and is willing to take the time, energy and effort to help you grow. In a culture of accountability, we’re obligated to tell people what’s not right and the receiving party should listen, understand, accept, and act on that feedback. But it doesn’t always play out that way. Sometimes you get an emotional reaction that prevents the conversation from being constructive. Back out gracefully and give them space. I like to say something like, “It sounds like you need some time to absorb this. Take some time and we can discuss it later.” Check back with the person later. If they still aren’t accepting the feedback after a couple of attempts then it’s appropriate to go up the chain of command.

Make a Plan

Once the person accepts your feedback and wants to resolve the issue, it becomes a two-sided conversation. Work through it together and come up with what action the person should take. Maybe you need a manager or HR to be involved, maybe not. Then – and this is essential – set a date when you will meet again to discuss the person’s follow through.

Great companies have a culture of accountability where employees have each other’s best interests at heart and keep one another on track through constructive feedback. Do your part in creating that culture.


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