Your Options For Handling Conflict (Part 4): Exit the relationship

Some people might tell you that the only way to manage work disagreements is to dive right in and straighten things out. This isn’t true. While dealing with the conflict directly can be the most effective route, it isn’t the only one. In this chapter I explain your four options: Do nothingaddress it indirectlyaddress it directly, and exit the relationship.

Exit: Get Out of the Situation Entirely

Your final option is to extricate yourself from the situation by either getting reassigned to another project, finding a new boss, or leaving the company. This is usually a last resort. “You can’t always leave a relationship, especially at work,” Uzzi says. When you’re disagreeing with a boss or someone on your team, you may just be stuck with that person, unless you’re willing to find another job. But if the conflict is with someone in another department or a person outside your company, such as a vendor, you may be able to reduce your contact.

Exiting doesn’t mean that you end the relationship by making a dramatic scene. Instead, look for a way to stop interacting with that person. If it’s a client with whom you have an ongoing conflict, you may explain the situation to your supervisor and propose that one of your equally qualified colleagues replaces you on the account. If it’s someone you work with in the finance department, you can begin to build a relationship with someone else on that team so that you have an alternative contact. If your boss is the problem, you might apply to jobs in other departments; you can start by building a broader network in the organization or connecting with people on teams you may want to join.

This sounds easier said than done, and often it is. Exiting is a risky option because it’s not something you can typically do overnight or even in a week’s time. More likely it’s something you’ll build toward slowly, while you dust off your résumé, expand your network, and have conversations with people who may be able to support you in making the move.

Brett says that it’s usually worth trying the other three options before ending things completely. But there are situations in which the conflict is so bad and seemingly intractable that severing the relationship is the best option.

Use when

  • You’re dealing with someone from another department or outside your company where your jobs aren’t interdependent
  • You can easily find another job somewhere else
  • You’ve tried other options and nothing has worked

Keep in mind that this option

  • May give you a sense of relief because it gives you a clean break
  • Can protect you from further time wasted, stress, and discomfort
  • Is likely to take a lot of work from you (including potentially difficult conversations) to change departments, get reassigned, or leave your job
  • May hurt other relationships as you sever ties with this person
  • Can have negative repercussions if you leave a project and then you’re later blamed for its failure because you abandoned the team or client
  • May make you seem as though you’re difficult to work with

What it looks like in practice

When the 50-person department that Monique worked in was restructured, she wasn’t happy with her new direct supervisor, Samir. “He didn’t know how to manage. He was patronizing. He didn’t seem interested in my contributions. And it wasn’t clear what he wanted me to be doing,” she explains. To make matters worse, she didn’t believe in the direction Samir was taking the department, a unit that she had spent years helping to build. She repeatedly tried to get clearer directions from him, but the conversations quickly disintegrated, leaving Monique frustrated and Samir confused. “It felt near impossible to have a constructive conversation with him,” she says.

After six months of pulling her hair out, Monique went to the head of HR, with whom she had a positive relationship. She didn’t want to complain openly for fear that it would get back to her boss. “That would’ve felt like tattle telling. Instead, I explained to her that as Samir’s responsibilities were expanding, he probably had more than enough to do,” she says. She suggested that maybe she could report to a different manager. “She thought it was an interesting idea,” she says. A couple of weeks went by, and during one of her one-on-one meetings with Samir, he proposed the new reporting structure and asked how she felt about it. Her response, “Whatever’s best for the team, I’m willing to do.” Monique was very happy with her new manager and felt she had done the best she could do under the circumstances. “If things hadn’t changed, I would’ve left the company,” she says.

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