How do I manage conflict between employees?
What should I do when coworkers don't get along?
In May, Ki Moments began a series, The Manager as Mediator, designed to help leaders address organizational and personality conflict involving coworkers, management, and leadership teams. The 5-step model offers a coaching intervention and step-by-step process for developing skills in yourself and the people you support.
The competencies in this model apply across organizational strata to help you address conflict at the executive level, with middle and upper management, and on employee teams.
We’ve offered an introduction and posts on:
Step #1: First Manage You
Step #2: Measure and Gain Commitment
Step #3: Meet Individually First
Step #4-1: Build and Teach Conflict and Communication Skills--Quality of Being
Step #4-2: Build and Teach Conflict and Communication Skills--Communication Strategies
This post focuses on the last step in the process: Step #5: Bring the Parties Together.
If you're like many managers with conflicting coworkers, this may have been your first thought--bring the parties together and talk things out. And this might well be useful if the parties have some ability to manage their emotions and a working knowledge of inquiry, advocacy, and acknowledgment skills.
However, consider using the 5-step process if one or more of the following conditions exist:
- Emotions are high
- The parties are easily triggered
- The conflict has been going on for a while
- Others are beginning to polarize and choose sides
First Joint Meeting
During the individual sessions, you had an opportunity to learn where there is common ground. For example, each party may be tired of the conflict by now. Each may also have a better understanding of the part he/she played in the development of the conflict. In addition, the parties have new skills and may be eager to try them out.
I suggest having the first joint meeting outside the office. Take the parties out to lunch somewhere you know they'll enjoy. There's something about breaking bread together that tends to bring out the best in people.
At this first meeting, especially if it's lunch, let them know they won't be talking about the conflict. They can talk about favorite movies, hobbies, sports, things they like about where they live, high points in their life, what they enjoy doing when they're not working--anything but the problem.
When you get people talking about things they love talking about, they change. This first meeting is an opportunity to build connection and commonality. Help each see the other as a human being with many parts, not just the part that's the problem.
Subsequent Joint Meetings
Your primary goals as the coach/facilitator in these subsequent meetings:
- Continue to draw attention to commonalities and alignment
- Create mini agreements
- Forge sustainable solutions
- Prevent recurrence
- Build confidence and capacity
If the parties completed a behavior or conflict styles profile, ask each to talk about what they learned about themselves. Have them compare similarities and differences as a process of discovery.
Invite them to share their experiences with the training process and what they've come to appreciate about each other through the individual sessions.
As you discuss areas of conflict, ask the parties to guess and acknowledge what they imagine is the other's point of view. Depending on your situation, the following questions may help to stimulate the conversation:
- What values would you say you have in common?
- What is needed to resolve this process so that the solution is sustainable?
- What are problem areas that could get in the way down the line?
- How will you keep future conflicts from escalating?
- What does respect look like? Give one or two specific behaviors or examples.
- How do you like to receive feedback?
- What is something we've talked about in our individual sessions that you want to reinforce with each other?
- How do you want to tell the story of this process 5 years from now?
Return once more to the questions we talked about in Step 3:
- On a scale of 1-10, how optimistic are you about resolving this conflict?
- On a scale of 1-10, what is your willingness to resolve the issues? What is your commitment to this process?
New Life at Work
While the skills to manage conflict are not always intuitive or visible in the workplace, they do exist and are learnable. We become proficient by practicing them.
As your people raise awareness, build skills, and re-establish relationship, you'll see barriers come down and attitudes lighten. Life at work turns out to be more effortless as they assume responsibility for holding crucial conversations well. They may even become apostles, preaching the possibilities of constructive conflict transformation.
Where they began the process as skeptics, they soon see how practicing a few simple skills can change everything and how they have more power than they ever thought possible.