Here's How To Manage Employee Conflict Without Taking Sides
Stop me if you've heard this before. Two of your top performers who started at the same time, knocked projects out of the park together, and have worked well as a team for many years, suddenly hit a roadblock. The relationship, for some reason, has deteriorated to the point where this former power duo now take great pains to avoid each other in hallways and speak only through third parties. When they do have to address each other for the sake of a project, things are tense and awkward and the rest of the team has become uncomfortable - or worse. They've begun to take sides.
Conflict is a given in any workplace. Sometimes your team will work it out for themselves, and sometimes you must step in and help manage the situation and pave the way towards a resolution. However, if you want to make things better, you've got to approach managing a conflict with an eye for objectivity.
You Wanna Step Inside?
If a conflict is getting out of hand and it has become apparent that you must step in to get everyone re-focused on their job, the best thing to do is hold a meeting behind closed doors - not a conference room with glass doors where curiosity seekers can walk by to see what's happening. Even if a conflict has become disruptive, the situation still requires sensitivity.
You might even consider taking the conversation off-site to a completely neutral location like a hotel meeting room, especially if the conflict involves high-level managers who might draw a lot of attention from curious employees.
Let's Get Ready To (Not) Rumble
Managing employee conflict isn't about refereeing, inserting your opinion, determining who is right or wrong, or demanding a resolution. You are simply there to facilitate the journey and keep everyone focused on the goal of moving forward.
Once you've got everyone together and you're ready to start airing things out, set some ground rules to maintain order - and keep yourself firmly planted in neutral territory. Make sure each person knows that when the other party has the floor, they should not talk. Assure them that each person will have time to air their issue, and equal time will be given to everyone. Also state very clearly for the record that you are not there to take sides, just facilitate the conversation.
When you're ready to get down to business, keep this list of do's and don'ts in mind to keep things fair, yet moving forward:
- Ensure complete confidentiality.
- Allow each person to vent his or her side of the issue without interruption or judgment.
- Empathize with each person - being very careful not to lean too heavily towards one side or the other - even if you feel drawn to do so. Each person wants to know they are being given equal consideration, and each person deserves that consideration.
- Remain levelheaded and even-handed, even if one person is making claims you find personally absurd. The last thing you want to do is to get drawn into the fight.
- Give examples of the ways in which the conflict - not the individual - is hurting the team as a whole.
- Explain the consequences if the parties cannot reach a resolution. What will have to happen to keep their teams and the company on track to achieve their goals?
- Require "I statements" like, "I feel this way" or, "I need to know this piece of information."
- Stop the conversation if it begins to get too heated, if someone resorts to name-calling, or if profanity is used. Also stop the conversation if you feel drawn to one side or the other.
- Let a conflict get out of hand. When you notice that a situation is beginning to escalate, bring it down a notch. Venting is one thing. Screaming and yelling or making personal attacks should not be tolerated.
- Insert your opinion when no one asked for advice.
- Try to play the peacekeeper if you simply do not have the time or the skills to do so.
- Draw in unnecessary parties. The conflict is between those two employees. If you need help reaching a resolution, only bring in someone who is qualified. Don't just grab a manager off the floor or pull in another executive who happens to be nearby.
- Try to do it all in one session. If you've been talking for an hour and nothing is resolved, stop and schedule another meeting for the next day.
- Allow "you" statements such as, "when you do this it makes me mad" or, "When you say that, it makes me angry."
A conflict is successfully resolved if each person feels like they were treated fairly and gained something positive. There is nothing to be gained from taking sides. If an employee conflict just runs too deep for you to manage, there is no shame in stepping aside and making way for a professional mediator or consultant to take over and ensure that fairness prevails.