When conflict spills over on the job

Even if we don’t like it, office politics often play a large role in what goes on at work. Three experts weigh in on how to deal with tough situations in a professional manner.
Tuesday, March 9, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:28 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 12, 2008

The experts:

  • Debbie Dougherty

    An assistant professor of communications at MU. Her research focuses on emotion and power in the workplace.
  • Mark Farnen

    The vice president and director of public relations at Woodruff Communications, an advertising, marketing and public relations firm on Cherry Street.
  • Doug Moesel

    An associate professor of management in the MU College of Business.


Your boss, who is the son of your company’s CEO, always insists that he is right, even though he rarely is. When you point out his mistakes, including evidence that he is wrong, he tells you that you’re the one who is wrong and never to question his intelligence again. Because of his mistakes, your company is starting to lose credibility. What do you do?

DOUGHERTY: The worst situation to work with is when your boss is unreasonable. Given the opportunity, I would want to find a new employer. However, that isn’t always possible, so I would try to find a way to make the situation better. Everybody communicates differently, so I would try to find the most appropriate way to respond to him. I would try to find more strategic ways to point out my different ideas and ways of doing things, so that I could possibly make him believe my ideas are his ideas.

MOESEL: A core strength of a family business, its commitment to its employees, can become its chief weakness if nepotism is allowed to triumph over merit. In most family business situations, the family is aware when a problem exists with a family member, such as alcoholism, a drug problem or a real lack of motivation to do their work role efficiently. However, a family may be much more patient in trying to help the individual work through such problems than might be the case in a nonfamily business. I would approach the CEO with my concerns in order to get his own perspective of his philosophy in dealing with the situation. If it sounded to me from that conversation that nepotism was more important than merit, then I would look for alternative employment. This would be due to my strong concerns about the long-term performance of such a company. In leaving, I would write a friendly but cautionary note to the CEO about the possible danger of the path he is pursuing.


You work at a public service organization and people are constantly coming in and out of your small office. Your colleague likes to go for a jog during lunch, and he comes back smelling like a pair of gym socks. The office is small and everybody is bothered by this, including your clients. What do you do?

DOUGHERTY: I would get a small fan and set it up in the office. I would hesitate to talk to my (colleague) because I think there are other issues that are more important. I think that people can usually smell themselves, so hopefully he would do something about the problem.

MOESEL: This is a sensitive situation. I wrestled in high school, and there was a low-income teammate who never washed his wrestling uniform. Some would do hateful things such as put a towel and soap in front of his locker and refuse to ever wrestle against him. However, coming from a low-income background myself, I sympathized with his plight. I figured he probably did not have an adult in his life with the time and energy to teach him about basic hygiene, and he probably did not have a washer and dryer in his home, nor the money for a second set of wrestling workout clothes. This scenario appears a little different, but again, I think offering friendly advice without judgment on the basis of expressions of concern from customers/clients is the best way to try to bring about the change sought.

FARNEN: Good hygiene is the mark of a professional. You can judge the professionalism of a person not only in the quality of their work, but also by the pride they take in themselves, so any boss should encourage people to take pride in both. It may seem to be a delicate issue, but it can be met intelligently and quickly, and should be dealt with head on.


Your boss does nothing all day except give orders to employees and sit at her desk, trying to look busy. She also makes enemies with other companies in town, leaving the office staff members to listen to their complaints. When you confront your boss about this, she becomes furious and reminds you that she is the one in charge, not you. What do you do?

MOESEL: This doesn’t sound like the type of boss anyone would enjoy. It should be noted that bosses may, in fact, be much more busy than they appear (such as when trying to reason through a long-term problem), though in my experience most bosses are quite busy and wish that they could find more time for such long-term thinking. The scenario uses the word “confront,” but I am not sure that this would be the most effective way to deal with such a boss. If she knowingly makes enemies easily, then confrontation with such a boss would likely do more harm than good. I would approach such a boss and consult with her about a single issue at a time (such as a pattern of worrisome customer complaints) to see if she would be willing to help me track down the root causes of such a pattern of complaints. Ideally, the cause can be located in a pattern of action that can be changed rather than in an individual’s personality. In this way, I am communicating a willingness to support my boss as she learns to improve, rather than saddling her with blame. However, if employees are already leaving quickly and customers are moving rapidly to competitors, going directly to her own boss to call attention to the absence of needed leadership would be necessary to attempt to stop the damage before it becomes irreversible. If I decided to leave, I would request an exit interview to calmly explain my perception of the problem in the unit I am leaving.


A friend of yours takes a promotion and begins to head a new account. However, she obviously has no clue what she is doing, and people around her are getting fired for her mistakes. You ask her to step down from the position and/or tell your boss she needs help, but she refuses. What do you do?

DOUGHERTY: My reaction would depend on how bad the situation is. My expectation is that the bosses would find out for themselves and do something about it. If not, I would try to talk to my colleague and see if there was something that I could do to help her with the situation.

MOESEL: If people around her are getting fired for her mistakes and she is the account head, then I can only assume that she is the one doing the firing, or is the one locating the blame on others associated with the same account. I think this would actually be somewhat hard to cover up in dealing with a prominent customer. A problem with the account would normally become her problem as well — especially if a large customer threatens to take its business elsewhere — effectively eliminating her job. If the problem is serious enough that someone is getting fired for cause through a scapegoating process, then it is the ethical duty of co-workers to act quickly to protest such unfair dismissal and to request an appeal proceeding for the dismissed worker to more closely examine the source of account problems. Even if her first firing was upheld in an appeal, hopefully by the time of an appeal of the second firing, her arguments in support of the dismissal would begin to fail the “sniff” test. If not, I would gather other colleagues and suggest an ultimatum to senior management that due process must be fairly administered or we would all step down.

FARNEN: It would be my hope that the boss has also recognized the situation for what it is. But, if he or she has not, an employee, friend or not, would be justified in discussing the situation with the boss. In my opinion, a change in personnel would be the best option.


You spend days developing a new idea that you are sure will make your company a smashing success. After you present your idea, another co-worker, who is known for being a lazy brown-noser, introduces his idea, which he came up with right before the meeting. Your idea is obviously better planned and developed, but your boss decides to go with your co-worker’s. You know he didn’t choose you because you don’t suck up as much. What do you do?

DOUGHERTY: My reaction would really depend on the situation. First, I would try to communicate with my boss about what we need to do to make our relationship better. If I cannot establish a more friendly relationship with the boss, I might choose to speak with him about why he doesn’t support my ideas, and then change my (working habits) to a manner that would please him. If he is still being unreasonable after I try to work things out, then I might choose a different organization to work in.

MOESEL: My first step would be to approach the boss and calmly explain the reasons for my disappointment at the decision, and to get his perspective on why the other idea seemed more attractive. A repeated pattern of selection by a boss of less-developed ideas, along with poor logic as to why these ideas were preferred, would certainly be troublesome. In that case, if my boss has centralized authority and resource control and does not depend on a larger group for advice and input on such decisions, he is also likely to be held more fully accountable for the results of such investment decisions. An employee has the option to wait around until the boss is held accountable for poor performance or, more likely, would try to transfer horizontally to work for a different boss that seems more competent. If accountability seems a long way off and transfer to a better boss was not an option, then I would actively explore opportunities with another organization.

FARNEN: If the plan is practical, then it is the boss’ decision to choose which plan he believes is best. The boss is the boss, and it is incumbent upon him to make the correct decision. After he does make a decision, everybody needs to get on board, go forward with it and trust the decision of the person in charge. Disappointment is not a good reason to accept or deny somebody’s work.

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