When you have two individuals at odds, and each is valuable to the organization, knowledgeable, experienced, and compatible with everyone but each other, what do you do?
I'm in the process of writing a new book: Coming To Center, An Aikido Guidebook for Managers with Employees in Conflict.
The book illustrates a four-phase model I use when I'm invited to coach employees who are in conflict with each other and can't find their way out.
If this has happened in your team or organization, you may have tried:
- The pep talk: Come on, now, you can do this. Rise above it.
- The appeal to compassion and empathy: Try not to take things so personally; see things from their perspective.
- The common-sense approach: Your work is suffering. Something has to change. You don't have to be best friends, but you do have to work together and get the job done.
You may have also tried evading, ignoring, and hoping the situation will resolve itself. You’ve probably brought the topic up at performance reviews and talked to colleagues, coaches, and consultants. And yet the problem persists.
Both employees bring value to the organization. And they must be able to work together amicably. So you decide to take it to the next level and bring them together to talk things through.
Not Always the Best Approach
While it’s tempting to get everyone in the same room to talk things out, I’ve learned the hard way that a joint meeting at this early stage often makes matters worse. For example, maybe you experienced the following: Each individual pushes to have his or her perspective acknowledged. No one listens. Emotions run high. The problem escalates. And this is especially true if the conflict is ongoing. Each party has fine-tuned their narrative--their conflict story--about why the other person is the problem. Something like: If only they were different, everything would be all right.
Or you may have experienced the “let’s talk it out” meeting where one employee ends up feeling most of the heat. This can happen when, as their manager, you want to hear from all sides in the conflict, and you think it will be helpful for all involved to understand each other’s point of view. Plus, you hope it will save time. Unfortunately, this kind of meeting seldom goes well, especially if you have a belief that one of the people in the room is the source of the problem. Instead of resolving the conflict, one employee leaves feeling responsible, hurt, antagonistic and unable to face the team the next day.
Meet Individually First
What Coming to Center helps managers do is divide and conquer. In brief, you might want to consider meeting with each individual first, possibly for a series of sessions, in which you:
- Listen to their side of things. This always helps to defuse the situation.
- Give them time to consider that there may be other viewpoints as well.
- Help them to see their contribution to the conflict.
- Coach them on communication tools, such as centered presence, clarity of purpose, inquiry, acknowledgment, and how to express themselves clearly, directly, and respectfully.
- Then bring them together to build mutually agreeable solutions.
While you're working with them individually, your primary task is to ask questions, acknowledge their positive intent, and redirect what you hear toward resolution. It’s also important to notice and challenge your assumptions. For example, you may want to believe a high performer over a somewhat more average one. Instead consider that people may be different from your idea of who they are. Meeting with people individually gives you time to learn who each person really is, what motivates them, and the larger context for the conflict.
When they're ready to meet jointly, it may take several sessions for them to resolve the conflict, reflect on how they will keep their new relationship healthy, and reinforce their confidence.
The point of my new book is that you can do this. You can help resolve employee conflict with conscious intention, some key skills, and the belief that if others can do it, so can you. Your willingness to begin is the first step to seeing positive improvement in your people and your workplace.