As the boss, you’ve encouraged your people to work things out together, and you’ve tried to create an environment of congeniality and collaboration. You’ve also tried to address the underlying structural problems that often trigger conflict among co-workers. But folks are still showing up in your office telling you that you have to make a decision and choose between one party and another.
You can end the overt struggle, but you can’t resolve a conflict by fiat. Sometimes only the application of power will call a halt to visible hostilities. But even the power play is not enough: The underlying tension among the parties will not only continue, but can turn into passive aggression, political behavior, and backbiting.
Okay, you’re not Solomon. So what’s an appropriate role for you to play?
It’s a Desk, Not a Throne
Please don’t think you can just send people back to their offices to hash it out like two siblings sent to their room to figure things out between them. If you don’t take an active part you’ll probably get results you didn’t expect and don’t want. Even among adults, if you send adversaries away to seek resolution by themselves, you’ll get the same result you typically get with siblings: The one with more power will generally win. You might also see ongoing passive resistance or sniping from the loser, as well as gloating from the winner.
And please don’t ever say to your subordinates what I’ve heard from some frustrated managers: “If you can’t work it out, I can’t help you.” It’s your job to see the situation through and not to leave it dumped in the middle of the conference room.
You may already know what you want the outcome to be. And you could just announce your view of the situation and let the chips of the relationship fall where they may. But you know it will be better for your team and the organization if you can help eliminate angry, argumentative behavior.
The Manager as Referee
You need to keep the participants communicating with each other directly, not just through you, so be sure to hear them out together. Don’t permit bad behavior in the discussion. Some of the necessary feedback and coaching will have to be taken offline to help the individuals learn different ways to change undesirable behaviors through role playing and working out tentative agreements — but don’t let them use those discussions as a chance to win you over to their point of view.
Once a conflict gets to the point that it must be refereed by the manager, opponents sometimes downright refuse to budge, as if they can only hear the voice in their own head. They may seem completely oblivious to any of your suggestions for interacting. When that’s the case, try this: “I’m concerned that you’re hearing your own positions so loudly that you’re not actually taking in any of my suggestions. Let’s try to look at this from a different angle. Is there another way we can look at this?”
If the discussion doesn’t pick up after that, you may need to give the participants time to regroup, or even table the discussion completely until you can get other facts or more support for one position or another — or come up with a whole new idea!
After Push Comes to Shove
It’s an advantage when you already know the individuals as human beings and are familiar with what kinds of interactions are comfortable for them. Does one person integrate concrete examples better than concepts? Does another need examples of the brighter future or of the unpleasant present in order to move away from the latter and toward the former? These are aspects of the kind of facilitation that will help them talk with each other, not just with you.
At some point (not too early or you might, inadvertently, shut down the dialogue), you’ll need to declare your own position as part of asserting and maintaining your authority. The position you take does not need to reflect either of theirs. Instead, you may need to establish your own view of the situation and make it clear that you expect them to comply — and exactly how.
No matter how fierce their opposition, if the participants are operating in good faith, with patience and good communication skills, you will, in most cases, help them achieve a workable reconciliation. (See How to Manage Conflict at Work, Part IV: Coming to Terms and Getting Back to Business for more on recovering from conflict.)
In next week’s post, the final in this series, we’ll look at the unfortunate — and too common circumstance — when adversaries just won’t give up the fight.
Onward and upward,