Have you ever had what began as a good working relationship go bad? Do you know someone who’s had a terrible conflict with their boss or co-worker? Is there a work team in your past that you would characterize as dysfunctional?

Do you wonder if there was something that could have been done along the way to prevent things from getting so far out of hand?

Chances are there was. If only someone had recognized the signposts along the way and turned in a useful direction.

What are the signposts?

In the beginning, the early signs give you a heads up, “Hey, pay attention. Change what you’re doing and you’ll get back on track.”

If you ignore the first couple of signs, you’ll have to work harder to make repairs after skidding off the road but it’s still possible.

No tools for repairs? Well then, the next sign tells you that things are going to get much worse. Buckle up. Do what you must to regain control of the situation for the good of all or everyone suffers the consequences.

By the fifth, your airbag explodes and you’re going to need help.

Let me explain further.

1. Friction – Slow DownGerman speed limit sign with words Friction slow down

At this point, a minor problem erupts between you and another person. It could stem from a misunderstanding, lack of clarity, a missed expectation, small annoyance or disagreement. You might not even consider this problem a conflict. It’s merely what happens whenever two or more people get together. Often you catch it, talk it through, make a decision and move on.

Occasionally, the problem seems too petty or insignificant and you let it go. You’re too busy and don’t want to take the time to deal with it. The friction may be with someone with whom you feel uncomfortable. It’s your boss or that prickly co-worker or an assertive team member. Whatever the reason, you choose to avoid it.

As you know if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, the problem won’t go away. It may change face—the content might encompass additional related issues—but the underlying dynamic between you now includes tension that wasn’t there before.

Yes it’s true, and I have also written about this, sometimes avoidance is the better part of valor but I’m not talking about those times here.

It is always easier to address problems at this signpost. Best not pass it by and go on to the next.

Green road sign with Assumptions and an arrow2. Assumptions This Way

You can go in one of two directions: down the path of reconciliation or toward the forest of assumptions and misperceptions.

The difficulty is that the truly easier path—reconciliation—is a gravel road. It looks like it’ll be an uncomfortable ride. Only the first few feet are, though. Once you’re on it, the tires find the grooves and you’re fine.

A simple admission to start with might work.

“Remember yesterday when we_____. Well, I may have taken it wrong. Can we go over that again?”

Or how about, “It looks like it would have been better if we’d closed on that decision last week (or completed some task or solved a project-related problem or clarified roles). Let’s revisit it now to avoid a domino effect.”

If, on the other hand, you drive in the opposite direction, you’ll begin second guessing each other. You’ll make negative assumptions about the other’s intent. Your perceptions, and theirs, will be influenced by that unresolved issue. As the problem unfolds, you start thinking in terms of who is right (you, of course) and who is wrong. The other person appears difficult to you and you begin ascribing negative characteristics to him or her.

You see where this is leading, don’t you?

3. Danger Slippery Slopedanger slippery slope sign

That’s right. Down the slippery slope of fear, blame and mistrust. That can’t be good.

Now you’re barely talking to each other and never about the elephant standing between you. You make up stories about each other and about the original inciting incident which has grown out of all proportion.

You can still save each other. Grab hands and slow the slide into the ditch.

Initiate a conversation that starts with an acknowledgement of how you’ve contributed to the problem between you. Apologize if necessary and mean it. Talk about your common wants and goals. Suggest using a structured problem solving process to recover lost ground.

Steep Hill All the Way road sign4. Up Hill All the Way

Uh-oh. You didn’t act to make things better at the previous sign post. Now you’re slogging uphill. Those sharp rocks and brambles hurt, don’t they?

You’re in pain and you’ll do almost anything to protect yourself and your interests at the expense of the other person. It’s about winning and losing now. Even if you can’t win outright, you’ll make sure you lose less than your opponent.

All communications are hostile. Trust is gone. You view anything the other person does as hostile.

Worse, you each forge alliances in the workplace and others begin to take sides. Soon, the entire office is infected.

It’s still not too late to grab hold of an olive branch. The person extending it, though, is a third person at the bottom of the hill. You both need to grasp it and allow yourselves to be pulled in.

This person is usually someone you both trust inside the organization or someone hired from outside to facilitate a re-building and solution generating process.

5. Break Down – Exit Onlyexit sign with words Break Down on it

If you’ve arrived at the fifth signpost, you have some difficult choices to make. In a marriage, this is the point of deciding to get a divorce. At work, you may be considering whether to look for another job.

Leaving the situation may not be the easy solution either. Issues about salary, reputation and your health and well-being may now be part of the larger context of the conflict. They may require third-party intervention in the form of a mediator, judge or arbitrator. This is expensive and I’m not talking only about money.

If the entire work team is involved, it usually isn’t feasible to break up all the individuals and re-assign them to other jobs. Senior managers will have to intervene. There will be winners and losers, and you may not have a choice at all.

This is by far the most painful, difficult and costly place to end up. That’s why they call it intractable conflict.

It’s far better to notice the first signpost and end the journey there. This is not a road trip worth taking.

Have you ever witnessed an escalation like this? How did it end?

Photo Credits:  Blue Square Thing and Larry He’s So Fine via Creative Commons PhotoPin; also altered Microsoft ClipArt by Jagoda Perich-Anderson