To Be A Better Leader, Learn How To Referee Work Relationships

When you are able to put on the striped black-and-white referee shirt and mediate conflict, you’ve taken a large step toward becoming a more valuable leader.


When we first did our research into the factors that create employee work passion, we weren’t surprised when connectedness with your leader showed up as one of the factors. Previous research done by Gallup and other organizations had shown that employees’ relationships with their direct supervisors was important. But what we found after analyzing the data more closely was that there were actually two separate and distinct components of connectedness. In addition to connectedness with their leader, people also had a need and desire for connectedness with their colleagues.

Considering all of the time people spend with their colleagues on a day-to-day basis, it only makes sense that this relationship would be seen as a key component of an engaging work environment. People need to feel safe and valued at work, and that comes from a number of different sources. For example, if you are working with people you don’t like, or who you perceive don’t like you, that can make it hard to get yourself out of bed and cheerfully go to work.

Additionally, if you are working with people you don’t trust, or who you feel don’t have your back, you’ll adopt a guarded, defensive posture that will end up limiting you and keeping you from your best work.

The role of leaders

As leaders, we often don’t want to manage personalities and relationships, but the reality is that we need to keep an eye on the dynamics that are occurring in the departments or teams we are leading. If bad feelings between coworkers are left unaddressed, they can fester and spread to others. Any time leaders turn a blind eye to a lack of cooperation among teammates or rifts between coworkers, their behavior negatively impacts employee perceptions. When a leader doesn’t demonstrate the strength to stand up and confront a situation that needs to be addressed, it not only lowers respect for that leader, but it also undermines people’s sense that the leader has their best interests at heart.

That doesn’t mean that leaders should try to discourage differences of opinion. Sometimes leaders try to proactively address the negative aspects of a work environment by limiting disagreement. On the surface this might seem like a good idea, but in reality this is just another form of avoidance. It’s important to remember that disagreement in and of itself is not the problem. It’s normal to have disagreements any time you bring together a group of high performing individuals with strong opinions. But there is a big difference between healthy disagreement–where people have a chance to talk it out and debate both sides of an issue–and taking things personally.


Just make sure that you strike the right balance. Some managers take the concept of healthy debate too far and use it as a management tool to spark innovation. Promoting this type of environment can quickly turn into a negative situation, because pitting people against each other can lead to a pattern of establishing winners and losers. This doesn’t create the camaraderie and connection you are looking for.

Creating connectedness

The most effective leaders foster environments where people feel safe to put their best ideas forward and debate pros and cons aggressively. Their goal is to create a culture where everyone has the welfare of the team and individual members in mind. Leaders can take steps to improve levels of connectedness among their people in three ways.

1.    Make managing cooperation between people a part of your job. Take responsibility for connectedness and make it a priority. Find ways to encourage people to know each other beyond their work roles. Be especially mindful to avoid creating overly competitive or divisive conditions.

2.    Pay attention and watch the dynamics occurring in your team. Keep your ear to the ground and listen to what is being said and what is happening in your department. Also pay attention to what is not being said. Silence is not necessarily a good thing. Trust your instincts and watch out for little pinpricks–for example, sarcastic remarks or hurt expressions–that can build into more significant issues.

3.    Tackle issues early before a mole hill develops into a mountain. Most conflicts and big issues are a result of small issues that were ignored in the beginning and allowed to escalate, resulting in an altercation. It’s much more difficult to mediate an issue once it reaches that state, because now you have to contend with the back story of what is happening. Address issues head-on.


Putting on the striped shirt

Personality conflicts and poor work behaviors are never easy to address, but dealing with such issues is a key part of a leader’s job. Don’t allow a team to suffer through inattention. Managing relationships requires work, but it’s one of those skills that shows you are a true leader. When you are able to put on the striped black-and-white referee shirt and mediate conflict–when you take responsibility for fostering cooperation, collaboration, and collegiality between coworkers–you’ve taken a large step toward becoming a more productive and valuable leader.

Scott Blanchard is the Executive Vice President of Client Solutions for The Ken Blanchard Companies®. Ken Blanchard is the best-selling co-author of The One Minute Manager® and 50 other books on leadership. You can follow Ken Blanchard on Twitter @KenBlanchard or @LeaderChat and also via the HowWeLead and LeaderChat blogs.

[Image: Flickr user heat_fan 1]


About the author

Scott Blanchard is the Executive Vice President of Client Solutions for The Ken Blanchard Companies®. Ken Blanchard is the best-selling co-author of The One Minute Manager® and 50 other books on leadership