The fine art of dealing with squabbling workers

What should a manager do when two or more employees are squabbling with each other?

Chronic conflict can hurt productivity, cause customers to leave and induce talented employees to look for a more agreeable place to work.

But if managers jump in too quickly, they run the risk that employees will never learn to work through their differences on their own. Instead, they may be all too willing to argue over differences of opinion, knowing that the boss will fix it.

Squabbling WorkersAt the other extreme, some managers hate dealing with conflict so much that they stick their heads in the sand and neglect to do anything about it. They may rationalize that ‘I don’t have time to deal with such petty issues” or “Jennifer is one of my top performers. I don’t want her to quit.” They hope the issues will work themselves out sooner or later.

But avoidance seldom solves entrenched conflicts, which are only likely to get worse if ignored.

A rule of thumb is to encourage the warring parties to work it out on their own. But if the conflict starts affecting their work – or other people’s work – and persists for more than a couple of days, the manager should talk to the employees involved and be prepared to take an active role in solving the problem.

Following are some guidelines for how to intervene when it gets to that point.

Separate employees for a cooling off period.

If emotions are too high for constructive discussion, schedule a later time for the three of you to meet. The next day is often best as there is some merit to “sleeping on it.” Separate the employees until then if necessary.

Allow both to tell their stories.

At the appointed first meeting, give each employee a chance to tell his or her story. Ask the other not to interrupt. Ask questions to get all the facts. Recognize that there are two sides to every story, and both may be accurate as far as they go. Listen without judging or taking sides.

Keep the discussion about specific, observable, job-relevant behaviors.

As they tell their stories, you can begin to model constructive conflict resolution by bringing the dialogue back to objective behaviors whenever they veer off into opinions or characterizations of the other’s personality or motives. One way to do that is to respectfully repeat, as necessary, “Tell me what you saw and heard. How did it affect your ability to do your job?”

Paraphrase their positions, and validate both parties.

When both employees have finished presenting their views, paraphrase what they said, substituting more objective language where appropriate. Validate both of them by expressing empathy and understanding of their positions. Continue moving toward constructive resolution by giving positive feedback for any elements of compromise or problem-solving in their presentations.

Bring a reality check to the discussion – reframe the problem so it is solvable.

This is the point where you introduce a new perspective. Often parties in a conflict become so embroiled in the minutiae of what happened, fueled by their emotional reactions, that they can’t see the beach for the sand. It is your job to reframe the situation in a way that is solvable. Show them the bigger picture. Appeal to their better nature, which sets the stage for the next step.

Engage employees to come together and create a solution – hold each accountable.

Ask the pair what it would take to resolve the conflict and what each of them is willing to contribute. Be clear that you expect each of them to take an active role in finding a solution. In other words, show that you are not going to decide who is right and who is wrong, but rather that you are interested in what they are going to do differently in the future.

Plan for follow-up.

Once the employees have agreed on a solution, schedule a follow-up meeting. This brings home to them that they will be held accountable for actually doing what they agreed to do. And, of course, it provides an opportunity for you to assess their progress and make adjustments if necessary.

With conscientious and engaged employees, these kinds of interventions on your part should be sufficient to get past the conflict and restore equilibrium. If not, you may need to look at your performance management policies and procedures.

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