Ask the Expert

How to Deal With a #$@&%! Coworker | Judith White | Associate Professor of Management

“Any conflict resolution is an information game. The more information you have from the other person, the more power you have to resolve the issue and achieve your goals,” says White, who began her career in law and now teaches courses on negotiations and conflict management at Tuck School of Business. “Too many times we enter into a conflict thinking that we have to persuade or corner the other person so that they must do what we want them to do. That never works.” Instead, White offers this advice.

Stay Calm
“First, diagnose the problem: Is there a misunderstanding? Is there a personality conflict? Does a person just rub you the wrong way? Or do you have a conflict over real resources or a difference of opinion on a decision that needs to be made? I would separate out the feelings that I have right off the bat because I don’t want to be driven by my emotions. I want to recognize them, but I don’t want to be driven by them.”

Listen
“Sit down face-to-face. Always give the other person a chance to talk. Try to get to the root of the problem and frame it around common goals. Use ‘I’ statements. For example, you might start by saying, ‘Here’s what I’m trying to accomplish,’ or, ‘Here’s what I think we’re working toward.’ Try to get agreement on general principles, then bring out the particular issues. Negotiation is interpersonal.”

Barter
“After you feel that both parties understand each other completely and have all the relevant information, you can make a proposal. You may not do it all in one conversation, and you might need to get more people involved at the table. If you’re not sure the other person is ready to go along, put two proposals on the table. Don’t think of it as a tug-of-war, where there’s a winner or a loser. It’s an exchange.”

Get it in Writing
“If a coworker is truly toxic, try to reduce the degree of interdependence between the two of you and put everything in writing. A face-to-face meeting is fine, but follow up everything in an email so you have a paper trail. You don’t want to have to get back together to relitigate what was decided the last time, because then the conflict will persist.”

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