Managers are responsible for promoting a workplace culture that enables employees to thrive. If differences of opinion rise to the level of interpersonal conflict, you must avoid the temptation to rise above the fray – and instead find a way to intervene appropriately. Unless turnover is your goal, refusal to engage is not an option and will inevitably be a barrier to your own success.
What Not To Do
- Don’t be an ostrich. This isn’t just going to go away without your assistance. On the contrary, it’s likely to fester like an untreated wound. Even if the conflict appears to have been dampened, it will resurface whenever a new flashpoint occurs and/or at the worst possible time for your organizational goals.
- Don’t assume only the antagonists are affected. Everyone with whom the conflicting employees interact is negatively affected by workplace stress caused by this conflict. Employees will come into work with a feeling of dread and insecurity, waiting for the next tense encounter. This creates a hostile work environment for everyone concerned. It’s a natural response to take sides in the face of conflict – meaning you will be faced with a divided organization if the issues are not addressed head-on.
- Don’t hold individual meetings. Inviting each individual to speak their mind privately polarizes their positions. Anyone embroiled in a conflict has a vested interest in being seen as “right,” convincing you – the judge – of the strength of their case.
- Don’t assume that “might makes right.” Just because one employee might hold rank and/or be more important to your long term organizational goals, does not mean they should get the edge. Helping resolve the conflict fairly means gaining the respect of all the employees in the workplace, many of whom have no doubt seen the conflict in progress and formed opinions. Conflict resolution means sometimes making the tough decisions in a case – even when it means going against someone whose immediate response you may fear.
- Take personal responsibility. You must own some of the problem. Ask yourself: “What is wrong with this work situation such that these two talented people are failing in this way?”
- Hold a joint meeting. Let each individual summarize their point of view. Don’t interrupt, nor allow the other party to interject. This should be brief, with just enough detail to allow clarity. Intervene if anyone raises their voice or attacks.
- Clarify you won’t take sides. This is particularly important if there is a discrepancy in rank between the parties. Explain that your assumption is that it’s impossible to know the truth of the matter. Advise that you expect the employees to resolve the issues like adults and that, if they are unwilling to do so, you will be forced to consider disciplinary action leading to formal warnings and/or dismissal for both parties. It’s one thing to have reasonable disagreements over issues; it’s quite another thing altogether to have personality conflicts that affect workplace morale.
- Request specific suggestions for improvement. These ideas should come from both parties and should be tangible, realizable and on-point. Three or four suggestions are ideal. Write them down. Have the employees write them down, too.
- Contribute and commit. Everyone in the discussion needs to contribute – no silent disdain nor smirks allowed – and commit to making the changes necessary to resolve the conflict, including noticing when someone has made a change, no matter how small.
- Assure the antagonists they will be successful. Encourage them to take meaningful actions to resolve the problems and then get on with their good work within the organization.
- Revisit the situation. Set a future date to meet again and review the progress each party has made.
Though challenging and often uncomfortable, the role of mediator comes with a manager’s territory. Coping with workplace dysfunction means engagement, not avoidance. Dodging conflict will only make you less significant and less effective. In short, your willingness to mold a work environment that engenders the success of all, will play a critical role in your own success as a manager.