In an ideal work environment, everyone works together for a common good. People know their jobs, do them without asking and participate as a team.
Unfortunately, no work environment is always ideal. Sometimes, you just don't mesh with a particular personality, or a co-worker is not pulling their fair share on a project. When that happens, you have four options: suffer in silence, escalate the issue to your boss, find a new job, or address the issue and negotiate with your co-worker to get the job done.
"When workplace relationships sour, you don't get points for suffering in silence, or taking on the role of the martyr. Rather than look the other way, confront the conflict," wrote Peter Barron Stark in his article "9 Ways to Handle Challenging Co-Workers." Addressing the problem can lead to a resolution that helps the whole office, he said – and is less painful than finding a new job.
Mark Babbitt, CEO of the intern agency YouTern, said that you have an advantage when negotiating with co-workers.
"No matter how well you present your case, when negotiating with your boss or clients, you may not be part of the final decision-making process," he said. "In a negotiation with a co-worker – whether to resolve conflict, co-manage a project or build a new process – you're an equal partner in whatever is decided."
Before going into a negotiation with a co-worker, do a little preparation:
Is this your battle? Babbitt advised picking your battles wisely.
"For example, when it comes to process control – as long as the work gets done in an acceptable level to both of you – you may want to show more flexibility," he said. "However, in the case of severe conflict or where ethical boundaries are crossed, you may want to be more firm in your expectations and demands. In that case, it is time to take the situation to your boss."
Determine what you want. Think in terms of best case and worst. Determine your BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement); in other words, how far can you compromise before you declare "no deal"? While a no-deal may mean you lose out, knowing your BATNA sets your limits of compromise.
Get objective. Going in with emotion puts you in the weaker spot. Start by identifying the problem as opposed to the personality. Regardless of interpersonal conflict, the company has a mission everyone contributes to.
Pick the best time. If stress is high or you or the other person are immersed in a different project, now may not be the best time to talk. Make an appointment if necessary and try to find a time when you are both in a receptive frame of mind.
How to negotiate with your co-worker
Start negotiations by finding common ground, said Babbitt: Once you've established what's equally important to both sides and how you can best work together collaboratively, trust is established.
"From there, the situation starts to feel less like a negotiation between two adversaries, and more like a team effort," he added.
Don't immediately propose a solution, though. Take a little time to hear the person out. The cause of the problem may not be what you think. Your "layabout" co-worker may in fact be struggling with the software or have four other high-priority projects. Knowing where your co-worker stands can help you both clarify the issue and come up with a better solution.
That doesn't mean you need to sit silently, however: "Commenting, 'I hear what you're saying and understand your premise. Here's my take on it …' validates the speaker and keeps the dialogue open," Stark said. "It's OK to disagree, as long as both sides feel heard and respected."
During negotiations, stay calm. Remember that this is about doing what is best for the company, not about getting your way. Assume the best of your co-worker and try to see their perspective.
Finally, take responsibility. You don't need to take blame for the problem, but do admit any role you had and apologize for it. Also, ask what you can do to help. Saying "what do you need?" or "what do you think if we ..." can go a long way to building a more receptive attitude in negotiations.
What if you can't resolve the situation? Know when to give up.
"Not every negotiation is going to have a win-win outcome," said Jeffrey Krivis in an article on Mediate.com.
At that point, you may have to escalate to your manager, but you can do so showing that you made a good-faith effort to handle the situation yourself, which reflects well on you. If it comes down to a worst-case scenario and the working environment is no longer bearable, your negotiating skills will be an asset when transferring to a new department or company.