Coronavirus Confrontation: How to Deal with Conflict when Working Remotely

Stress and uncertainty can bring out the ugly sides of some people. Faced with fight or flight, some of our colleagues, unfortunately, choose to fight, lashing out at others to impose a sense of control. 

This behavior might not look like a full-blown shouting match, but you might have noticed an increase in mean, insensitive comments over the past few weeks. Even if these comments are psychological defense mechanisms, they’re still not OK.

Remote communication can often exacerbate the problem. The internet can provide a false sense of immunity. Sometimes people say things over Zoom or email that they’d never say face-to-face.

What should you do if you are the victim of rude or aggressive behavior remotely? Sometimes the best course is to deflect or ignore it. But other times, you need to address conflict directly. 

Let’s use an example where an older employee makes inappropriate comments about a younger manager’s age. This might include small jabs like, “You’ve only been here for five minutes” or “Let’s get the opinion of someone with experience.” 

Here are my recommended steps for confronting unpleasant behavior in this or any situation when you’re working remotely:

Remember, confrontation doesn’t have to be confrontational

You should not approach conflict resolution with “an eye for an eye” attitude. Although you might like to return a snide comment with a real zinger, restrain yourself. Keep your cool. Confrontation is about being direct and discussing the issue civilly. 

Set a specific time to talk, free of distractions

If you think it’s easy to deflect conversations in the office, it’s even easier online in quarantine. You let the phone go to voicemail. You say your kid got into the peanut butter and you’ll be cleaning the kitchen for the next five days. The excuses are endless. 

Personally, I like to email the person in question to request a phone call to discuss a sensitive subject. Set a firm time and date. 

Keep your cool on the call

On your call, you might say something like, “So, I’m not sure if you notice that you’re doing it, but you’ve made a few negative comments lately in meetings about my age. I’d appreciate it if you could stop doing that.” Give the person the benefit of the doubt. Don’t assume ill intent before they’ve had a chance to give their side of the story.

If the first conversation isn’t successful, try again

It’s possible that your rude colleague doesn’t adjust their behavior after the first call — time to try a different approach. 

On your second call, you might say something like, “I’ve noticed you’re still mentioning my age in meetings. I’d love your input on whether I’m doing anything that makes me appear young or inexperienced. I wouldn’t want this perception to affect the entire team.” 

Remember to keep your request short, polite and non-accusatory. If possible, remain authentic to your personality. A sense of humor usually helps, too.

Ignore them

If the comments continue to persist after you’ve tried the strategies above, then I would take that as an indication that you’re simply working with a jerk who probably makes negative comments about a lot of different things to irritate a lot of different people.

If that’s the case, then most people probably won’t give this person’s comments much weight, and your best option might be to ignore them.

Contact HR and consider a formal complaint

If the person’s comments become aggressive or offensive or begin seriously to compromise your ability to get your job done, then a discussion with your HR representative, your boss or another authority figure becomes a legitimate option. You may want to inform your colleague of this by mentioning your attempts at reconciliation and that this seems to be the most appropriate course of action.

Please keep in mind that there is no one right answer when dealing with human beings. This is especially true in the unprecedented times in which we’re all working right now. You might follow these steps in a different order. You might replace them with your own steps. As long as you act from a place of integrity, I know you’ll get yourself to a better situation.

Conflict resolution is difficult, especially when differences cross generational lines. My new online course, How to Manage Millennials and Gen Zs in the Workplace, will help you grow your communication skills, sharpen your leadership approach and create lasting strategies to empower your Millennials and Gen Z employees. 

Join the waitlist today and be the first to know when this course goes live. 

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