Managers often find themselves trapped in the middle of situations that aren’t theirs to solve. Say one of your team members comes to you pleading that you compel another of your direct reports to handling something a certain way. It’s your job to give direction and make judgment calls, but where does that duty shade into arbitrating conflicts your teams should be handling?
To be fair, that’s often a tough call. In some cases, an exasperated team member will take an issue up with their manager because they genuinely think their approach will lead to the best results. But chances are the person they disagree with is just as convinced of their own ideas. Before you intervene, think about the possible outcomes. If you step in, will it look like you’re taking sides? Will your team be able to work together effectively afterward if you do? Ideally, both of your quarreling employees are valuable, and you want to keep both of them engaged, even if you can’t make both happy.
But worst of all, arbitrating certain disputes robs your team members of developing their own conflict management skills. One of your other jobs as a manager is to help your team grow, both individually and together. To do that, you need to help them resolve some of their own issues collaboratively. Here are five tips to help managers do just that.
Different circumstances call for different responses. If one employee’s weak performance is preventing other employees from getting their jobs done, you most certainly have a role to play. Address the performance deficiencies of that team member. If it comes down to an issue of harassment, stepping in is a much easier call, and your organization is legally required to investigate it. If an employee is struggling because of issues either in or outside the workplace, offer the support and resources you can in order to help them through it.
But if the matter comes down to disagreement over strategy or tactics involving a certain project, that might be a time to step back and encourage your team members to sort it out. You can and should give guidance, but you don’t always need to make a final call from on high.
Employees need the freedom and authority to solve problems that relate to their work. Today’s workers (especially millennials) want training that helps them advance their career. So give them the opportunity to learn conflict management techniques and develop problem-solving skills. In the midst of a dispute, your team members can get frustrated and aren’t always likely to see it as a teaching moment. That’s where you come in.
Needless to say, every conflict requires its own response, but you should model the techniques and skills you want your employees to learn each time. It behooves your company to cultivate a staff that’s capable not only of resolving issues and crises independently but of heading them off in the first place.
Define the problem and the impact it’s having in the workplace–tempers and egos aside. That won’t calm everyone down automatically, of course, but it will help your team members focus on the issue itself and not how they feel about it. Remember that the dispute could involve someone’s passion project. If emotions flare, help your employees control them so they don’t interfere with the resolution. Then give them space to work toward it. Call for a break and ask everyone to step away and reflect on things. It’s an opportunity to regain balance so conversations can carry on constructively.
As a manager who takes this approach, you’ll be a neutral observer. From that vantage point, you can help mediate the discussion. When you meet with the employees to do that, you should define roles and set ground rules. Again, the employees are the primary players here, not you. They’re the ones who you want asking questions of each other and proposing solutions. You won’t offer advice, opinions, or solutions, even if asked. You’re there to keep the discussion on track.
When team members butt heads over a project-related issue, it’s sometimes the sign of creativity and innovation trying to break through. Employees who are close to the work often have great ideas for better solutions. So help them brainstorm these ideas, then help them evaluate and prioritize them.
When people sit down and talk, calmly and rationally, information is exchanged–not assertions, opinions, or insults. There’s an opportunity to hear and understand different viewpoints. But as a manager, you need to create and protect those opportunities, otherwise they’ll become far less productive than they can be. By coaching your team members to sit back down together and work things out, you’ll end up strengthening their working relationships.
That employee who asks you to step in and resolve an issue may not know it at the time, but they’re really asking for help to grow. So embrace the conflict, don’t solve it. When everyone on your team can step up and own the issues they confront by working together, everyone benefits.
This article is adapted from The Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook: A Quick and Handy Resource for Any Manager, Team Leader, HR Professional, or Anyone Who Wants to Resolve Disputes and Increase Productivity (Career Press, September 2015) by Cornelia Gamlem and Barbara Mitchell. It is reprinted with permission.