Stop a co-worker feud before it starts

By Louise Penberthy
Guest columnist

A software developer made a colorful, striking glass candy dish in a glassblowing class. She put it on the filing cabinet outside her cubicle, full of candy for her friends at work.

Then the developer in the next cubicle knocked the dish off the cabinet and it broke. He claimed it was an accident, but he’d been feuding with her for months, so she was sure he was lying.

So she sued him.

That sounds extreme, and it was, but she sued for the value of the dish, the cost of taking the class again so she could make another dish, and mileage for the 45-minute drive to and from the studio for the four-class sessions. As the judge listened to the testimony, she told the parties more than once that they wouldn’t be happy with her ruling. Given the history of animosity between them, she urged them to opt for mediation. I was there in the courtroom, available to mediate their case. But they declined.

In the end, the judge could only award the developer the fair market value of the candy dish, adjusted for the proportion of fault she (the judge) thought each of them bore for its breaking. For a beautiful glass candy dish that the woman had made herself, and was proud of, the judge awarded her just $75. Reasonable people would say that they never want a feud with a coworker to get to the point of a lawsuit, even if it’s in small claims court as this one was. Yet there were those two people, both probably reasonable people – except when interacting with each other.

Three Tactics to Thwart a Feuding Co-Worker

If you’re ever in a situation with a coworker who won’t stop feuding with you, you’ll be happier and more productive if you can thwart the feuding coworker before the problem gets beyond the first few salvos. Here are three tactics you can use to stop a coworker who tries to feud with you.

Give your co-worker nothing legitimate to complain about

The first tactic to stop a feuding coworker is to give them nothing legitimate to complain about by completely adhering to your organization’s guidelines regarding your workplace.

Unfortunately, the software developer with the candy dish had tried to stop her co-worker’s feuding by responding to it. When he stacked boxes on her filing cabinet, she removed them and dumped them in his cubicle. When he complained that people coming to get candy from the dish were too noisy, she put up a sign that said, “Shh! Sensitive programmer nearby.”

In cases I mediate, I often hear stories about retaliation, and while it feels oh so good in the moment, it usually backfires in the end. So make sure that your coworker has no legitimate complaints. Also make sure to make any changes at a time that’s not right after your coworker has complained to you. You don’t want to give your coworker the idea that he or she can complain and get you to do things.

Flummox your coworker with non-responses

The second tactic is to flummox your coworker with non-responses. Nothing stops a feuding coworker like someone who won’t engage. I’ve worked with clients who’ve spoken blandly and neutrally when the other party has been rude or nasty, before I can even intervene. The other person has no idea what to say next, and that’s the end of their rudeness and nastiness.

Unfortunately, the software developer with the candy dish had been rude back to her coworker, so he was even more rude to her. Here are some of my favorite flummoxing nonresponses.

“I’m sorry, what was that?”

“Oh. That’s interesting.”

“Wow, you’re not doing that as well as you used to. Are you feeling okay?”

Don’t feel you have to wait until the situation gets “bad enough” before you do this. A situation that’s bothering you and interfering with your work is already bad enough. If you feel self-conscious saying any of these things, practice with a friend or someone at work whom you trust.

Co-opt nasty conversations

The third tactic to stop a feuding coworker is to co-opt or appropriate nasty conversations before your coworker can even start them. When you see this coworker coming, don’t avoid them.

Walk straight towards them and ask, “How about the (insert name of your favorite sports team)?” or, “I think it’ll stop snowing before it’s time to go home. What do you think?”

Be prepared with some facts or comments to continue the conversation if necessary. This tactic can feel like the most counterintuitive thing you can do. But you can stop the coworker’s nastiness before they even start it, talk about something neutral, and take control of the situation.

Again, if you feel self-conscious even thinking about this, practice with a friend.

So if you’re ever faced with feuding coworker, try these three tactics: make sure you’re following all the company’s guidelines related to the subject of the feud, flummox the coworker with nonresponses, and co-opt nasty conversations. If the coworker won’t stop, then talk to your HR department.

But if you try these three tactics, chances are you won’t have to.

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