by Jo Anne Preston, author of “Lead the Way in Five Minutes a Day: Sparking High Performance in Yourself and Your Team“
One of your employees is butting heads with a colleague, and they’ve come to you for help solving the problem. This is what you hear: “I can’t talk to So-and-So about this; they’d blow up and make my life miserable,” or, “I tried to smooth this over, but it didn’t work,” or, “You’re our leader; can’t you help?” All of these complaints are typically accompanied by the disclaimer, “Don’t tell anyone I talked to you about this!”
If just reading this gives you a sinking feeling, you’re not alone. Few leaders relish the task of refereeing between team members. But managing employee conflict comes with the territory.
When people with different personalities, priorities, work habits, and communication styles work together, conflict is inevitable. What shouldn’t be inevitable is you, the leader, being in the middle of every disagreement. Leaders need to learn how to empower employees to resolve these conflicts independently.
Yes, certain situations necessitate a leader’s involvement — for instance, when a standard of behavior has been violated or when emotions are dangerously high. But be careful. If you play referee (or savior, or disciplinarian, or confidante) too often, team dynamics like communication, trust, and morale will be negatively impacted. Your involvement may even make things worse if you’re seen as taking sides or overreacting.
I’m not saying you should refuse to help when employees are struggling, but in most instances, your help should come in the form of coaching and support. Your goal is to facilitate discussion, clarify boundaries, and ensure that the conversation remains civil and respectful. While this might be uncomfortable for all parties — at least initially — the result is worth the work. Conflict that is transformed through honest and safe dialogue, that you as a leader can foster, will create a trusting team that performs.
Here are seven ways to stay out of the fray the next time conflict is brewing:
Take a look in the mirror: Why does this keep happening?
Ask yourself: What am I getting out of this “being in the middle” position? (Feeling needed? Avoiding a difficult conversation myself?) What role am I playing in this drama? (Savior?) Have I fully accepted my leader role, or do I feel torn between being a part of the team and being a leader? (Feeling rejected?)
Listen to both sides.
By giving only one employee your ear, you unintentionally give that employee the advantage. Remember that there are two equally legitimate sides to each story. You almost certainly are not getting the full picture from an employee who has a grievance.
When a conversation goes down this road, bring the other person into the discussion immediately. Despite our intentions, we can often be easily swayed by whoever’s opinion we hear first.
Know the difference between “venting” and “gossip.”
Venting about the frustrations of a busy day is one thing. But a complaint session dedicated to griping about a coworker? That’s gossip and should be nipped in the bud.
Allowing a team member to gossip implies that you think gossip is okay. It’s not. Not only is gossip unproductive, it usually exacerbates existing issues, breaks down trust, and contributes to team dysfunction. When someone is venting to you about a coworker, suggest that the employee shift into problem-solving mode to turn it into a discussion that can get results.
Be prepared to help employees develop conflict management skills.
It’s not enough to tell employees, “Talk to the person yourself.” This might take the burden off your shoulders in the short term, but it isn’t going to solve anything if your employee isn’t sure how to proceed.
Consider how hard it is for most of us to have difficult conversations even with training! We must teach people the skills they need to have difficult conversations and provide plenty of support before and after. This might include clarifying an employee’s understanding of what a colleague’s duties actually are, brainstorming possible solutions, providing sample scripts, and reviewing what language is likely to escalate or de-escalate the situation.
Resist the urge to “collude” with the complainer.
Maybe the complainer is your friend, or perhaps you even agree with them. That’s all the more reason to set clear boundaries and avoid taking sides.
Encouraging trust and a level playing field is crucial if you truly want employees to manage their own conflict. Remember, even if your words are impartial, you won’t have credibility if your body language doesn’t match. Pay attention to your tone of voice and to nonverbal cues like eyebrow raises, shrugs, head shakes, and ‘knowing’ looks that might imply an unspoken agreement.
Increase your presence.
Sometimes we are so focused on our work that we miss our team’s interactions with one another. Pay attention to workplace dynamics. Reinforce the behaviors you want to see and coach your employees to do the same. Make it your goal to catch all job performance issues early on so your employees don’t have to be the ones to inform you when there is a concern brewing.
Leaders can often prevent conflict from cropping up in the first place if they notice the warning signs. It’s much easier to address a potentially problematic behavior, bad habit, or performance issue one-on-one with an employee before it begins to affect others.
Discuss your expectations with the whole team.
Let them know up front that you don’t intend to be the default workplace referee, but you are available to help them sort out conflicts. Preston suggests offering coaching to employees who want to reconcile with their coworkers but don’t know how, setting up a meeting with both parties to facilitate a discussion, and helping them create a workable solution.
By supporting your employees while they take the lead, you are encouraging teamwork and cooperation, not to mention subtly reminding them that they are all equally important. But one thing is crucial — do not let employees come to you with problems they don’t intend to follow through on.
As leader, your commitment doesn’t apply to one employee over another. Helping team members navigate conflict while taking a step back yourself can be tricky, but it is vital to maintaining trust and morale in your workplace. Best of all, when employees learn to navigate disagreements and advocate for themselves, they’ll be developing skills that will facilitate innovation and collaboration in the future.
Jo Anne Preston is the workforce and organizational development senior manager at the Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative, where she brings over four decades of her healthcare leadership experience to designing and delivering leadership and employee education for rural healthcare throughout Wisconsin and the U.S. She is the author of “Lead the Way in Five Minutes a Day: Sparking High Performance in Yourself and Your Team“, and writes a monthly leadership blog.