How to handle 7 awkward situations at work

How to handle 7 awkward situations at work

27 October 2017

Most of us face those awkward moments at work where what we say next can steer us toward conflict or nudge the dialog in a more productive direction.

In the Harvard Business Review, leadership designer and coach Alicia Bassuk offers practical suggestions on how to deal with seven tricky situations.

Situation 1: Someone takes credit for your idea

It’s not a matter of if this situation happens, but when: You competently make a point. It goes unacknowledged or is tersely rejected. Minutes or days later, a colleague or manager misrepresents your point as their own, restates it identically, and is praised and credited for making it.

What you should say: “Thanks for spotlighting my point.”

Why it works: Spoken with composure, it:

  • prevents you from being trivialised by serving notice about the misappropriation of your contribution
  • allows you to reclaim your idea without aspersion
  • gives you the upper hand when addressing the matter with a manager
  • provides an opportunity for greater ownership, if delivered in front of others, by offering detail or clarification for impact


Situation 2: You’re asked to stay late when you’re about to leave the office for a personal obligation

What you should say: “Excuse me, I have another commitment.”

Picking up your child from day-care, moving a parent into a care facility, or attending a surgery consultation with a dear friend are time sensitive, must-do things—especially when someone you love is depending on you. No matter how family-friendly a workplace claims to be, explaining family matters to colleagues can cause resentment.

Why it works: This sentence will minimise your risk of backlash because it:

  • serves as an implicit, respectable request for confidentiality
  • establishes an information boundary that puts anyone who crosses it at risk of appearing intrusive
  • eliminates over-sharing about the reason for your departure


Situation 3: In a pivotal situation, a trusted colleague snaps at you

What you should say: “This isn’t about what you do for me. It is about what you did to me.”

You know when a valued colleague, someone who almost always does right by you, damages your good rapport? Frustration follows when your attempt to address it is met with a retort and a guilt trip. Though their concerns may be valid, it doesn’t mean they should be rude.

Why it works: When stated without emotional inflammation, this sentence can quickly reduce frustrations by:

  • limiting the scope of the exchange to the isolated misstep, and not being derailed by an exchange about a history of mutual consideration
  • quickly dealing with the fact-based, cause-effect dynamics of the exchange
  • allowing for an opportunity to establish mutually affirming conduct going forward


Situation 4: You have to say “no.”

What you should say: “This is a good launching point.”

Saying no is tough to do, especially when trying to demonstrate you are hardworking and a team player. It often seems easier to say yes to appease others, flash the right optics, or get the task out of the way.

Why it works: Spoken with a tone of enthusiasm and flexibility, this positive statement allows you to bow out of the initial request, while protecting your reputation by:

  • reframing their idea as a starting point
  • allowing you to entertain the request without committing to it
  • creating the option to shape the request
  • doling out diplomacy not rejection


Situation 5: You have to give negative or awkward feedback to someone you’re close with

What you should say: “I’m here to be for you what someone once was for me.”

When you are giving sensitive feedback, no matter how much you try to position yourself as an advocate, people tend to become defensive. It makes you question if giving the feedback is even worth it.

Why it works: Delivered in a calm and candid tone, this sentence can save a career, or life-altering moment, from becoming a decimating event with an alienating outcome by:

  • giving the other person a moment to brace themselves
  • leading by sharing a personal account of a tough feedback situation you experienced, which endorses the value of receiving and listening to criticism
  • instantly unifying you with the other person through your shared vulnerability
  • shifting them from hearing the message as disparagement to hearing it as encouragement or concern


Situation 6: You need to push back on a decision you believe is wrong

What you should say: “This is my preference.”

Sometimes, when something bothers you, addressing it can leave you feeling apprehensive and conflicted. You can spend time analysing and detailing a defence for your perspective, but it may just overcomplicate matters.

Why it works: It will allow you to direct the conversation toward a desired change, while still conveying openness for other approaches by:

  • clearly communicating your concern and what you want
  • reasoning rather than offering a defiant dictate
  • demonstrating you are willing to get involved with a potentially sensitive topic
  • giving others the heads-up that the outcome matters to you enough to track it as it develops


Situation 7: You need to escalate a serious issue

What you should say: “Your response gives me cause to take this further.”

When it comes to serious issues like sexual harassment, there is still inconsistency with how managers and HR departments handle complaints. This can leave you worried and troubled about being mistreated again, about losing opportunities for promotion, and even about losing your job.

Why it works: This serious statement, delivered in a calm and matter-of-fact tone, informs the offender and managers that you will not be complicit and compliant with misconduct, and that you will figure out a way to take further action, by:

  • establishing that the issue isn’t going away, whether they elect to handle the situation themselves or answer to someone else about it later
  • being transparent about your plan to escalate
  • demonstrating that you expect the offender to suffer consequences for committing the poor conduct, and that you will not suffer consequences for reporting it
  • empowering you in the moment, rather than demoralizing you in the aftermath


(This article was published in the Harvard Business Review)