How to Resolve Conflict at Work When Colleagues are Mad at You

Difficult colleagueHave you ever had someone mad at you or your team for not delivering something as expected?

That’s never a great feeling. It’s even worse when their disappointment comes as a surprise to you.

The key questions become:

  • Are they just being a difficult customer or colleague?


  • Is there a legitimacy to their anger or frustration?

How you resolve conflicts at work will depend a lot on the answers to those questions.

Sometimes you know that it is your fault…

There are times when you know that you’re not delivering what you were supposed to provide. You’ve clearly missed a deadline, the work is somehow incomplete, or you weren’t able to coordinate all the pieces to come together the way they were envisioned. You know you’ve got to handle the situation carefully, but you aren’t sure what to do.

Sometimes you don’t…

And then there are times when you think you are delivering just the right thing and you are caught off-guard by your colleague’s response. Their disappointment and frustration leave you wondering what to do next. You’re reeling in a bit of confusion and surprise yourself at the turn of events, but you know that your response is vital to recovering from the situation.

But it’s always important that you respond well

Remain CalmWhatever the case, it’s a difficult situation when for some reason somebody doesn’t think you or your team have come through on something important. You didn’t do what was expected, or at least that’s the way they feel about it.

How you handle things at this point will go a long way toward recovering well and preventing future misunderstandings.

The discussions can be difficult, uncomfortable, and counter-productive if not handled well. Your career success in many areas, as an individual or a team leader, depends on your ability to deal with these situations in a professional and productive manner.

This article will help you handle it adeptly.

We’ll look at:

  • The possible causes, and
  • The best ways to respond

Possible Causes – What Went Wrong?

Let’s look at the possibilities and consider the strategies to make the best of a challenging situation.

There are commonalities to difficult situations where expectations and reality are at odds, but it’s crucial that we step back an examine some important nuances of a particular situation. Understanding both the context of the scenario and the details of certain aspects will be important to understanding what happened. Knowing what got us to a particular point will heavily influence our strategy for moving forward.

Here’s the 3-step analysis method that I use for these situations:

  1. Understand the fact pattern
  2. Look for process gaps
  3. Consider the other person’s perspective

I think of it as taking a dispassionate-passionate view of the world of this problem.

The idea is to look directly and objectively at all of the facts and the entirety of the process that supported the work and communication up to this point. That is the dispassionate view. There is no consideration of opinion or office politics or anything except the complete set of specific and indisputable facts.

The passionate view is taken from the other person’s perspective. This aspect is easy to overlook but absolutely crucial to understanding the “world” this problem lives in. Here it’s absolutely crucial to ascertain the world view and circumstances of the other person, including the dynamics of office politics, organizational culture, opinions and biases.

Just The Facts

Gathering facts is an exercise in precision. Collect meeting minutes, emails, and handwritten notes. This is not the time to rely on memory, though you may need to work to recall events yourself and with the help of others so that you can narrow in on facts.

Organize the dates, times, and details of exactly what was said by whom and in what order. With so much communication happening over email, voice mail, and similar systems, this should not be too arduous. You probably use some type of system for note taking that should be helpful too, whether it’s captured in an electronic tool such as Evernote or a physical notepad. Scrolling back through screens or flipping back through pages should be quick and easy and the information you gather will be very helpful.

Falling Through The Gap

As you put the facts together, you will come to better understand the process you used to manage this task. Look for gaps.

Did you take notes consistently at every meeting? Were all the right people present at all the right meetings? Did you pose all the necessary questions to determine all the requirements? Did you get all the responses that you needed? Were all status updates clear, accurate, and timely?

Where might things have gone off track from a communications standpoint?

The Other Person’s World

Now that you’ve worked hard to take your emotions out of the equation and to take a clinical and objective view of the scenario, it’s time to consider emotions – the other person’s emotions.

Who are they and what is their function? What sort of pressure are they under? What specific challenges are they facing right now?

What is the broader company culture? Is it one of blame and bravado or cohesion and collaboration? Is the person’s reaction in line with the large culture or does it conflict with that general viewpoint?

Is the reaction consistent with their behavior in the past in dealing with you or others or is it unusual? Are they treating you differently than how they treat others or the same?

Taking this type of inventory of the emotional profile of the person you are dealing with can be quite revealing. You may be find that larger forces are at play – particularly if this inventory is in conflict with the facts gathered above.

Combining the dispassionate facts with the passionate view of the other party can bring a lot into focus. For instance, you could find that mistakes were made but the reaction is disproportionate to the offense. Or you might find that the reason the person is being difficult has nothing to do with you or your team. It could also be he case that something you thought to be insignificant turns out to be absolutely crucial in the other person’s view.

Once you have a handle on exactly what the possible causes might be and what the complete context of the issue is, you are ready to develop strategies for resolution.

A Good Response

Because you’ve spent some time and energy to really understand the full situation clearly and accurately, you will be able to make a good choice about how best to proceed.

The other benefit of having done some analysis is that you will separate your reaction from your response. Let’s face it, in a difficult situation like the one we’re exploring in this article, you are likely to have your own emotional reaction.

That’s OK!

In fact, it’s completely natural and necessary. But it doesn’t have to become your response to the situation.

What we’re ultimately aiming for is a professional, thoughtful way to help take corrective action to resolve a conflict. That requires a response, not a reaction.

Let’s look at three components of a response:

  1. Appeasement
  2. Push back
  3. Clearing the air

Appeasement – Blame and Responsibility

You can accept blame and you can accept responsibility. You can also accept responsibility without accepting blame. This is particularly important if immediate action is required and you or your team are the ones needed most.

Appeasement is really a short-term solution, and not a great one unless you really have just completely messed something up.

Even if you aren’t ready to accept all the blame, appeasement can help to calm nerves a great deal so that you can get something accomplished when time is tight.

It’s often a good idea to simply take the high road and do whatever needs to be done in the moment. Just don’t leave it at that. When the dust settles, you need to clear the air.

Push back – When You’re Right, You’re Right

Before we get to clearing the air, though, there is another first response to consider. It might be appropriate to push back. This is a risky strategy and probably only best used when there is little doubt about who is right and who is out of line.

If you are on solid footing and the other person is making some egregious claim, you should hold your ground. Sometimes there is a clear process, procedure, or methodology and the other person is simply trying to bully his or her way through the system.

Or it may be that you’ve dotted all your “I”s and crossed all your “T”s, you’ve made your list and checked it twice, and you’ve verified and validated everything in advance. If you’re right and you know it, politely and professionally make that clear.

And, yes, style matters here. Being right and communicating it ineffectively or unprofessionally is not that far from being wrong.

Clearing The Air – Always Necessary and Worthwhile

A good response always includes a clearing of the air. Sometimes called a post-mortem analysis, it’s important to review the whole situation from beginning to end.

That review can find fault, but that’s not the point. The point is to emerge with lessons learned.

Those lessons should inform your practices so that similar situations can be prevented in the future. In that spirit, it’s essential that you walk through this analysis with the other person. Don’t do it alone or only with your team. After all, you’re goal is to improve communication and you can never do that on your own. The conversation, particularly in a calm and quiet context, will go a long way toward improving the relationship and future communications. Do not skip this step.

Complicating Factors

The workplace is complex. Every organization has a unique political environment, a distinctive power structure, and it’s own cultural norms. All of these factors can make it difficult to navigate these times when you’ve not met someone’s expectations. Sometimes whether you are right or you are wrong is completely beside the point.

Even in those extreme situations, it’s worth putting a good effort into understanding what went wrong and figuring out how to fix it. You will always learn valuable lessons, even if you don’t always get good results.

Figuring out how to navigate an organization is always worthwhile. There is no better time to learn than when things aren’t going well. That’s always when true character is revealed.