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In a workplace, if there is a conflict with a coworker, the best approach is to talk to the coworker about the problem directly. If a resolution cannot be reached, one can then try talking to the coworker’s manager, and so on.

In that situation, should you tell the coworker that you intend to speak to their manager?

I would be as polite as possible about it:

Thanks for hearing me out. However, the response you gave me does not solve this problem because…. So, I will talk to [manager’s name] to see if perhaps he/she can find a solution to this.

On the one hand, I think that people might want to know that you intend to speak to their manager regarding something they said or did. On the other, directly telling someone that you will speak to their manager, even politely, might raise the tension and can sound like a threat.

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    Can you elaborate or provide an example? The blocktext you have makes it seem as though you believe the coworker is somehow answerable to you and required to solve your problem. Your question comes across as very presumptuous and condescending. I'm hoping there's some context you can add to it. – Wesley Long Dec 8 '20 at 16:35
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    Is there a problem with the coworker or a problem you have that you’re asking the coworker to help solve? These are two very different things that require different actions. If it’s the latter, there’s no reason to assume the manager is the right person to go to next. – AffableAmbler Dec 8 '20 at 21:08
  • @WesleyLong I changed "my problem" to "this problem" in the block text. I am talking about a problem directly involving the other person. To give a random 2020-inspired example, let's say that you need to collaborate with a certain coworker for a company project. They insist that they only want to meet in-person while you want to do it remotely because of social distancing. – hb20007 Dec 8 '20 at 21:46
  • Why do not not ask them to escalate your request for you? – Polygnome Dec 8 '20 at 21:54
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    But... why don't you speak about it with your manager ? – Surb Dec 9 '20 at 12:10
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Though it is difficult to phrase "I will tell your manager" without it sounding threatening, it may be reasonable or polite to tell the co-worker that you don't consider the matter closed, like:

Thank you for your help thus far; I'm not sure this solution works for me because [reason]. I might need to continue searching for options; if any alternatives become available please let me know.

This has the benefit of showing appreciation for your colleague's answer and indicating that they may hear from you again regarding the same issue. If the issue does wind up with a manager, they may hear about it again in connection with you, so setting that expectation may be beneficial instead of neglecting to reply or falsely signaling that you consider the issue resolved.

That said, one thing that might help your options or communication is to understand what do you intend to solve by going to their manager.

If this is a business issue and you think that your colleague is mistaken, biased, or incorrectly prioritizing, then escalating the issue may be seen as calling your colleague's knowledge or judgment into question. Suggesting their manager's attention might also be seen as a threat of trouble, or a sign that you think you know better than them. A better option might be to ask for their help in getting a second opinion, especially if you have external factors motivating you and you can do so with camaraderie and humility.

There's a lot of attention on this, so I might be asked for a second opinion. May I check with [manager's name] or someone else to help make the case?

If you think your colleague has exhausted all of their options but that their superior may have more, you can also ask for their permission or help.

I appreciate that you've done all you can here. Would [manager's name] be able to help? Is there anything that I can provide to help you there?

As you clarified in the comments, if this is a matter of personal working style or personal policy rather than a company decision, then going to their manager may rightly be interpreted as overpowering them or causing trouble. If this affects your work, your right escalation path is through your own manager as in Snow's answer. No matter who you go to, remember that the goal is to learn the constraints and work through the issue rather than to change your colleague's mind or behavior directly.

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    "Is there anything that I can provide to help you there?" A warning that, in context, this would come across as saccharin and inauthentic outside of the US, or at least in the UK. – Asteroids With Wings Dec 9 '20 at 19:34
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    @AsteroidsWithWings Fair call. It's a bit hard to make a vague request read well (for what we have to go on), but you're right that this isn't perfect or universal wording and should be adjusted with that cultural context in mind. The point is to start with the premise that you and your colleague can work together to find and solve the systemic problem (to borrow Kramii's excellent framing in their answer). – Jeff Bowman Dec 10 '20 at 17:07
  • Yepper agreed... – Asteroids With Wings Dec 10 '20 at 17:46
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If you can't resolve the situation by talking to them personally, then you should not tell them that you're going to their boss.

Personally, I'd talk to my own manager about the issue first and see what they have to say - they might well intervene on your behalf if this is affecting your work.

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    Right up the chain of command +1 Management will ask if you've spoken to the coworker, if you can say "yes", then you've done your part. – Old_Lamplighter Dec 8 '20 at 17:35
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    Agreed - if the conflict is affecting your work, that becomes an issue for your manager to deal with as they see fit - which may or may not include talking to the coworker's manager. – Alex Zuroff Dec 9 '20 at 0:02
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    This is absolutely what I would have recommended, +1. Your own manager may have advice to help you navigate this situation, speak on your behalf or even consult your co-worker's manager. And I think your own manager would appreciate you consulting them first rather that your co-workers manager. (and now the work "manager" has lost all meaning to me) – DoctorPenguin Dec 9 '20 at 9:32
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    Absolutely. Only your manager should talk to the counterparties manager. – lalala Dec 9 '20 at 11:33
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Generally speaking, no. It comes across as a form of coercion and/or threat.

It also doesn't help your case, but it could possibly negatively impact it since the person is now alerted and could take actions to negate or otherwise obfuscate the problem you're going to point out.

It also precludes the possibility that you and their superior find a solution that does not openly include this person in a negative manner.

You can also never exclude the possibility that you were either wrong or did not have the full picture as to why the problem is occurring or already known to occur. If you speak to their superior privately, they could inform you of something you don't yet know without you having significantly damaged the working relationship with this person.

No matter how to spin it, if you tell someone you're going to their superior to their face, they will never trust you again, and you will be treated to the letter of what is required of them, nothing more. Maybe that is exactly what you want, but it's also going to lead to social isolation.

Be very careful about playing the boss card.

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    The company already employs somebody whose job is to talk to other workers' managers when necessary to fix problems. That person is your manager. Don't try to do their work for them! – alephzero Dec 9 '20 at 0:34
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    Going to another person's manager to deal with problems you have with one of their reports is a bad move. It's not even doing their work for them, it's going to cause issues for your manager, and it's definitely going to damage the trust between you and your manager. – Malisbad Dec 9 '20 at 7:57
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    Your premise is "if you tell someone you're going to their superior to their face, they will never trust you again" and your conclusion is that you should go the their superior behind their back? How could that possibly make you any more trustworthy? – Stef Dec 10 '20 at 13:18
  • @Stef: Trustworthiness does not entail ignoring problems. I didn't say that OP needs to actively lie and say they're not going to the manager, or that they have to pretend like the problem has been solved and then go talk to their manager. OP genuinely has a problem with this person (regardless of whether OP's expectation is actually correct or not). OP has not been able to resolve this with the person themselves. We're already at a stage where some kind of arbitration is desirable. There is already conflict here, so it's better to avoid a coercive implication on top of the existing issues. – Flater Dec 11 '20 at 9:52
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You rarely, if ever, should speak to their manager (alone).

99%+ of the time the issue can be resolved between yourselves and you shouldn't need to get management involved at all. You can do so by:

  • Better justifying your reasoning.
  • Asking questions to get them to better justify their reasoning.
  • Compromising. This is probably the most important one. Try to find some middle ground if possible. Also, many issues aren't all that important and for those it's usually best to just let the other person get their way if you can't convince them. This could go a long way to helping you get your way for some particularly important future issue.
  • (Politely) making it clear that you won't compromise.

If that didn't work and you really need to get management involved, the way to think of it is getting them to help the two of you resolve your issue, not trying to get your coworker to do what you want.

If you go to their manager (alone), that very much creates the impression that your goal is to get your way by getting your coworker to do what you want rather than to find some solution that's acceptable to both of you.

In general you should speak to management together, as this allows your coworker to also share their reasoning rather than having you just share your side of the issue. You also don't have to go speak to their manager specifically (it could also be your manager), as "help us resolve our issue" isn't specific to either of you, so on the surface there's little reason to favour one manager over the other. I would probably propose the option of either manager to your coworker rather than just one of the two.

You can speak to your own manager if your coworker refuses to go with you to speak to management, or really at any point before then. Your manager is there to help you resolve issues you encounter in the workplace. This may involve resolving the issues for you, or simply giving advice in terms of what you should do to resolve them yourself. If your manager isn't any help, you can consider asking a different trusted manager for advice, or asking how to resolve your specific situation on this site or a similar one.

If you've tried all of the above and somehow you still haven't found a resolution, then perhaps you can consider speaking to their manager. Since you should already have brought up speaking to management at this point, it would also make sense to tell them you'll speak to their manager. But do make it clear that the goal is to help you find a way to resolve the issue. This may also help change their mind about going with you.


The above applies mostly to conflicts involving differing opinions (broadly speaking).

If you have a "conflict" where they say they're unable to help you with something because they don't have access to some system, for example, this is more an issue of finding the right person to help you (or getting your coworker the access they need) rather than resolving an issue between the two of you. If you believe their manager is the right person to talk to, then do so. Telling your coworker who you're going to talk to, or asking them who you should talk to, would make sense.

If the nature of the conflict is them creating a hostile work environment (e.g. they are harassing you), then that's one of the few times where going to HR would make sense.

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  • This is the answer I was going to write if someone else didn't. I can attest to going to the manager together being a positive way to handle conflict. There were some times the manager ruled my way, some times my co-worker's way, sometimes a third, sometimes it turned into a brainstorming session. But whatever the result, co-worker and I leave that meeting without hard feelings, which is the most important thing. It also strengthens your relationship with your manager. – Wayne Conrad Dec 9 '20 at 15:38
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It depends on the nature of the conflict.

Many of the causes of workplace conflict are systemic, not personal. When we dig a little deeper, we often find that our coworkers are not empowered by the system to give us the help we need. Perhaps they have other priorities, they don't have the tools or the knowledge, they have been told not to, or they're being rewarded for their unhelpful behaviour. Whatever the cause, the problem isn't really with the person, but with the situation.

For these types of problem, we're not going to their manager to complain about an individual. Rather, it is a matter of asking their manager to adjust the system to make it possibe to get things done.

On that basis, and for the sake of our working relationship with the individual concerned, the best approach is to (1) tell the person concerned that you need to speak to their manager, so that they can prepare for the fall-out, but (2) make it clear that you are on their side, that your problem is nit with them, and recognise that they're a victim of the system.

Then, when you do speak to management, make sure you actually make it about the system, not the person. Where you can, shine a positive light on the person with whom you were in conflict. For example, "Mary won't help me with X" sounds like you've got a problem with Mary. "it looks like Mary is pretty busy right now, but if she could be given a little time to help me with X..." is much less accusatory.

Of course, there are times when people are obnoxious, and the problem is with the individual, not the system. In those situations you're under no obligation to let them known that you intend to escalate the situation. That said, even in these situations, a little diplomacy can go a long way.

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  • That's a good distinction to make. – hb20007 Dec 9 '20 at 9:29
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In the situation you describe where you agree with your co-worker that there is a problem where you disagree over the solution, and assuming you have a good relationship with the co-worker in question, then the best approach is to go together to the manager and seek a solution.

Dealing with escalated disagreements is part of management's job, and by going together for a solution you can help preserve your working relationship with the co-worker and both receive an equal opportunity to put your point of view to the manager. Doing this helps reframe the problem as two people on the same side seeking to find a solution to their problem; rather than you and your co-worker as opposed parties.

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  • That's an interesting answer, but I think this can still increase the tension or sound like a threat. It might work in some situations, but since there is a conflict, the coworker might reply on the lines of, "there is no need to talk to [manager's name], I already gave you my answer". – hb20007 Dec 9 '20 at 9:27
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    @hb20007 I don't imagine it is always possible; but I think where it is possible it is always a better option than going over your co-workers head. – Jack Aidley Dec 9 '20 at 9:36
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    @hb20007 If they respond with "there is no need to talk to [manager's name], I already gave you my answer", then I would probably respond by clearly and politely repeating your objection (e.g. "I'm unfortunately not willing to meet in person due to health concerns") and asking how they propose resolving the issue. If they double-down on their proposal (e.g. "we can meet in person"), then repeat your objection again and say that involving management seems like the only way to resolve the issue. You can then say you're happy to speak to them alone if your coworker doesn't want to join you. – Bernhard Barker Dec 9 '20 at 11:17
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If you've reached the point of needing to escalate it to their manager, it's likely that written (i.e. email) communication is appropriate, in which case you should cc the person in question.

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