Conflict Resolution

3 Reasons To Confront Your Co-Worker

If your workplace is like most, people are too avoidant when it comes to conflict – even those who are more direct in their personal lives. That’s what Ralph Kilman, co-author of the world-renowned Thomas-Kilman Conflict Styles Inventory, found in a recent cross-organizational study. Too much avoidance means issues are swept under the carpet, contrary information is not shared, relational tension is not addressed and organizational performance suffers.

I’ll admit – there are times when I haven’t brought up concerns that were bothering me. Sometimes I’ve got good reasons: The issue is more than my stressed-out co-worker can deal with, or there are more pressing issues than the one that’s on my mind. It can be more mature to simply let it go.

But there are a number of unfortunate reasons we all avoid letting a co-worker know about a concern. One of them is due to something psychologists call the horns effect. Joshua Kennon writes that the horns effect is “a cognitive bias that causes you to allow one trait to overshadow other traits, behaviors, actions, or beliefs… individuals believe traits are inter-connected…”

As a result, if we believe a co-worker has been uncaring or unprofessional in one area of work, we think they would be uncaring or unprofessional when we approach them. We think our relationship will suffer, they might even retaliate, or sometimes we’re simply afraid of having an uncomfortable conversation. There is some truth to this – if we are uncaring or unprofessional when we confront, the relationship will suffer.

Ironically, another common but poor reason not to confront is when you realize that not confronting might be in your best interest if the co-worker doesn’t improve: their ineptitude makes you look better, putting you in a superior place for perks and promotions. After all, you reason, if they really wanted feedback, they wouldn’t be such jerks!

If you’re trying to decide if you should bring up an issue, here are three things to consider:

1. Quality

When done right, many confrontations have the potential to improve the quality of your mutual work. Some issues have a direct impact, while others have an indirect one:

When you don’t bring up issues that impact quality, you end up blaming others for poor quality output from your department, not recognizing that part of the problem is that you didn’t confront them.

Conversely, when you confront, and emphasize how their behaviour affects quality or productivity, it emphasizes your mutual commitment to your work and gives energy to what you do.

2. Relationship

When done carefully and respectfully, constructive confrontations also emphasize the commitment you have to the working relationship. However, bear in mind that confronting sloppily (not preparing or using good conflict resolution skills) will suggest you are not committed to the working relationship.

3. Creativity

In The Upside Of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self―Not Just Your “Good” Self―Drives Success And Fulfillment, Drs. Todd B. Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener discuss their finding that when groups determine not to confront on work issues, they produce far fewer creative solutions to problems. Conversely, organizations such as Intel were at their best when constructive confrontation was an established norm in their workplace culture.

Confronting a co-worker is usually not the easy choice. But if you do it well, it can be the most effective choice for your workplace, relationships and productivity.


Mike Labun

Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership

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