Help me resolve conflicts professionally
November 6, 2017 5:00 AM   Subscribe

I am in the final three weeks of my six month, room-and-board-covered onsite, unpaid internship at an academic non-profit that provides eco-tourism. This is my first time living outside of the U.S., and I’m glad I took the plunge. It is a fantastic and friendly place, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the work. I’ve made friends (though not close friends) with fellow interns and the local staff. There’s just one tiny problem…

I’ve known for a while (with the help of the emotional labor thread) that I tend to take on responsibilities when I see that others are not stepping forward. I have been providing most of the coordinating/supervising/communicating for what was supposed to be a joint project with Fellow Intern. I also enjoy physical labor and am passionate about agriculture, so I wind up doing most of the grunt work as well. Gentle Supervisor has been too busy to notice this problem. (Rules are rarely enforced around here… there’s a larger institutional problem I’ll mention further down).

I didn’t realize how frustrated I was, until one day when Fellow Intern left me in the middle of an important piece of the project promising to return, didn’t come back, didn’t send me a message, and didn’t apologize. I sent a very short email to Gentle Supervisor explaining that the joint project had morphed into a solo project due to a lack of initiative on the part of Fellow Intern, and that I was fine with that arrangement as long as I received credit where credit was due. (At the time, I felt it was the professional and self-respecting thing to do; in retrospect, I realize I also did it out of spite and a desire to offload the conflict on to an already busy Gentle Supervisor rather than try to deal with it myself.) Gentle Supervisor promised to bring this up in our next meeting, but they forgot (Gentle Supervisor is in a critical part of their PhD project, a project that my fellow intern and I are assisting with in a large way.)

I, foolishly, showed Fellow Intern this email exchange. He, understandably, is angry that I didn’t bring the issue up with him before escalating it to Supervisor. We had a conversation, and I learned the reasons why he was not pulling his weight. Some were good, some were lame excuses, some were happenstance, and some were my fault. We probably could have resolved the issue well on our own if we were better at communicating, but here we are.

Oh, and remember that “larger institutional problem” I mentioned earlier? Well, I’ve screwed up and sparked some discussion about the real and perceived mismatch in hours worked among individual interns, the different types of interns, and the interns versus staff (with no small amount of fire-stoking from others). I inadvertently brought Fellow Intern into the fray by asking a loaded question to Loudmouth Intern, who then pried out of me some things that were not my place to be sharing. This was at lunch, just out of earshot of Fellow Intern. Loudmouth went to Fellow, had a conversation, and it looks like they’ve resolved their misunderstanding, but now Fellow is angry with me for telling Loudmouth about the misunderstanding in the first place. Fuck.

I also happened to receive a sizable tip today, and helped stir up some tense discussion about tipping policy. Most interns are not on board with the official written policy of putting personal tips in the staff-wide tip box. I’m not a fan of the policy as written but I HATE being present in a setting where my colleagues or friends are breaking rules with my knowledge. New interns just now learned about the commonplace breaking of this rule, after having obeyed the rule earlier today. Group Mother Intern is trying to find a compromise.

Having screwed up three times now, my lips are fucking zipped. I’m usually a quiet, reserved person. I want to be open and talk about feelings and get stuff resolved (professional and personal contexts) but I can’t seem to go about it the right way. Was I out of place with any/all of the things I’ve done so far?

I’ve stirred the pot. My intentions were good, but it’s a delicate situation and I don’t want things to turn nasty. What now? Simply hope that Fellow Intern comes away feeling better after a talk with Supervisor? Hope that everyone’s instincts to avoid conflict kick in and this simmers back down? I leave in three weeks, and I want Fellow Intern to start taking ownership of Joint Project, but I guess I need to sit back and hope he takes that initiative…

I am early twenties, white, male, from the U.S., probably have mild autism, recently graduated with a bachelor degree, still getting over an unexpected breakup (2 years friends, then 2 years dating, now 5 months since breakup, we remain distant friends). I am engaged in a career search, and the stress of that plus the present issue is triggering my usually-manageable (yay medication!) depression/anxiety. My parents are wonderful and we have a good relationship; they are my only emotional support network right now.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (5 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You've already figured out that gossiping is a problem of yours, and discerned what you should and should not do. Learn from this and make your living amends by not doing it anymore. Fellow Intern's feelings are not your responsibility. You do not need to talk about feelings with your coworkers and "get things resolved," you are not a family. This is work.

Your joint project is your project, if you want it done, and it's going to have both your names on it. The ship has sailed. I hope that you'll have a good wrap-up with your supervisor where you impress upon him/her that you hope you will get recognition for your accomplishments if this person chooses to give you references.

Keep your tip; as soon as one person stops following the policy, it's null and void if it's not enforced. Don't let other people steal from you.

Internships are meant to primarily teach you things, about the job and about yourself and about the workplace in general. Did it do those things for you? If so, nice work. Three more weeks and you're home free. I hope you'll take some time to write out what you've learned like you did in those post and share it with your supervisor after you depart. That kind of self reflection was always welcomed when I supervised interns.
posted by juniperesque at 5:43 AM on November 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

I want Fellow Intern to start taking ownership of Joint Project, but I guess I need to sit back and hope he takes that initiative…

Why? That seems like setting up FI and the team for failure. Fellow Intern needs to learn to set aside temporary frustration with people and work with them anyway, if they haven't learned that already. (Don't say this to FI though). Set up a meeting with them to discuss Joint Project. Tell them you know now that you should have talked to them before going to the boss and you understand if they're frustrated. Don't let the conversation get stalled there - move on to transitioning the project. Create a game plan and ask Fellow Intern to review it and make suggestions.

You could also do some damage control for yourself and FI by going to your boss and saying "I realized I should have talked to FI before I went to you about Project. I talked to him recently and now I better understand the situation. I'd like to handle this better in the future - do you have any suggestions for me?"

More generally:
As I understand what you've written, you probably need to work on being straightforward and assuming good intent. It looked to you like FI abandoned the project but you could have gone to them and said "Hey, what's up? We were working on the project and you left. Is everything okay?" I tend to assume intent myself and then have trouble figuring out how to bring things up with people because I'm upset at what I think they mean by it. Running the situation by a mentor or trusted friend is helpful in these situations.

Another thing to learn is to be very careful what you say about your coworkers and to notice and deflect when someone is trying to get you to do that. This can be done with a polite, friendly tone - "Sorry, I don't like to talk about people - it's backfired on me in the past and I've learned my lesson. Hey, what did you think of the PQRST presentation this morning?"

In the meantime, stop being so hard on yourself. You're experimenting with how to get this right. Notice when it goes wrong and try something different and forgive yourself. No one is born knowing how to navigate a workplace, and most of us don't learn in college.

I haven't read Crucial Conversations but I've seen a presentation on some of the content and it was really helpful.
posted by bunderful at 5:44 AM on November 6, 2017 [4 favorites]

Wow, this sounds like a really stressful situation. One thing I'll say is that, if you are mostly in your early twenties, living and working together in a foreign country, probably in a rural area, interpersonal conflicts are almost guaranteed. That's a recipe not just for conflict, but for feeling like every little conflict is magnified in its importance. Regular jobs where you go home at the end of the day are unlikely to be that conflict-filled.

From my not-in-the-middle-of-it viewpoint, it seems like you all made some pretty run-of-the-mill mistakes. You should have spoken up earlier. Fellow Intern should have been more aware of the impact of his actions. Your supervisor should have noticed things weren't even.

But. You know, these are all mistakes people make when they're learning. And boy, you're going to be gone in less than a month. As soon as you leave the pressure cooker, this will start to seem less and less like a Huge Deal.

So for now, I think I'd start thinking just about how you want to leave things. I would personally just stick with patching things up with fellow intern. I'd just say something like "hey, I realize now I should have talked with you first, and I'm really sorry about that. I'm leaving in three weeks and I'd like us to be able to work well together the next three weeks so that I'm leaving you in a good position to continue - is that possible?" If he's reasonable, he'll appreciate the gesture and probably just get on with it. If he's too mad for that, well that seems unreasonable and there's nothing you can really do about it.
posted by lunasol at 6:05 AM on November 6, 2017 [4 favorites]

Working relationships, and boundaries, and protocols, can be incredibly subtle and hard to gauge, not to mention varying a lot from org to org. If you're stressed and struggling, and particularly if you need clear rules and guidance (which is a guess due to you mentioning possible mild autism), here are some that might help to follow:

RULE: If you have an issue with someone or their work (or lack thereof) it's almost always best to talk to them before anyone else (other interns, supervisor, etc). It's harder, but it's more grown up. If that doesn't work, only then do you go up the chain of command.

RULE: Don't say anything about someone, or their work, that you would be embarrassed if they overheard. If you find yourself in the middle of a conversation about person X and it's tending towards being negative or judgemental, think about how it would feel to you if you saw them overhearing it. It's ok to pull yourself back - "I think I might be being a bit unfair on them actually, I don't have their side to the story, anyway lets change the subject".

GUIDANCE: to help balance out the frustration you feel about your fellow intern's perceived lack of effort, something to bear in mind is that when you're working on a project as a team, you're not just being judged on the output. Being able to collaborate and communicate effectively are valuable assets in employees, and for your career to be successful you'll need to work on those just as much as your work itself.

GUIDANCE: when things go wrong, you can create something out of that by learning from it. "This too shall pass", and when it does, make sure you take forward positive learnings from it. When you think of it all as part of the learning you have gathered during this time, then there's no need to think of this situation as a big dramatic failure (which is easier said than done when you are stressed out and in an unfamiliar situation).
posted by greenish at 6:10 AM on November 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

something to bear in mind is that when you're working on a project as a team, you're not just being judged on the output. Being able to collaborate and communicate effectively are valuable assets in employees, and for your career to be successful you'll need to work on those just as much as your work itself.

This is a really good point. And if it makes you feel better: when you are in a work setting, if you're consistently carrying more than your share of the load, people will notice. Not always, and that can be frustrating, but it's not like school group projects where everyone gets the same grade and you all move on. At the same time, there are no grades in the working world, and the way you're evaluated is more complex, as greenish alludes to. If you are seen as someone who is competent and hard-working AND can work well with others, including managing small conflicts that come up, you will do well.
posted by lunasol at 7:19 AM on November 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

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