Diffusing Conflict in the Workplace

By Kyle Webb
Co-chair of IMA's Young Professionals Committee
North American Production Operations Accountant, Marathon Oil Company, Houston, TX

As professionals, we face this more often than we like. It makes us uncomfortable. It stirs up lots of emotions and feelings. It distracts us and can make us significantly less productive. What is this thing?  It is workplace confrontation. As much as we may try to avoid it, or pretend it does not exist, workplace confrontation is real and as professionals, we need to know how to deal with it effectively. 

In our digital and global world, workplace confrontation increasingly takes place through e-mail. I suspect this is occurring for two reasons: 1) It is easier to hide behind a digital cloak and say things you would not otherwise say to someone's face in an e-mail, and 2) In a global world, people may not have the opportunity to talk face-to-face with many of their co-workers. Even though confrontation has gone digital, it does not mean dealing with it becomes less important or easier. If anything, dealing with it becomes more important and difficult.

To shed some light on how to deal with this issue, I will give you an example of a conflict I faced recently via e-mail with a coworker who worked in a different state and who I had never met. My coworker was upset that I had sent him an incomplete reconciliation and felt I was trying to hand work off to him. He was not subtle in his feelings. In my initial e-mail, I had been kind in explaining that I was only trying to meet a deadline and the reconciliation was incomplete due to information lacking on his end. I asked if there was a justifiable reason for the information to be lacking. Because I knew my coworker was extremely organized, I had no reason to believe that he had overtly not done his job. What I did next is what I think will help you the next time you face workplace confrontation.

Upon receiving his angry e-mail, I stepped back from the situation so that I would not respond rashly. I then took the e-mail to my supervisor for guidance on how he thought I should respond. I incorporated his advice and wrote an e-mail that spoke to the facts and ignored all emotion from my coworker's e-mail. By doing this, we exchanged a few more e-mails that ultimately allowed us both to learn about some weak links in our process that we were able to shore up.

I do not claim to be an expert on workplace confrontation, but I do believe the above tactics work in diffusing confrontation, whether face-to-face, on the phone, or through e-mail. The most important thing to keep in mind when responding to your coworkers is to try to understand where they are coming from and then shape your response in a way that either makes them see you are on the same team and/or how they stand to benefit if they step back and work through the problem in a constructive manner. 

In my situation, I met my coworker face-to-face for the first time a few weeks after our confrontation, and we had an extremely productive week of work together. Our relationship has strengthened through this confrontation and we can now move forward working productively with each other. I welcome your comments on what you have done to diffuse workplace confrontation. What tactics have worked well for you?  Not so well?

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The IMA Young Accounting Pros Blog features the insights of IMA's Young Professionals Committee. Committee members share advice and experiences on careers, continuing education, work/life balance, and other issues affecting young accounting and finance professionals.

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