How to approach employee conflict
23 June 2020
These two employees fought, drove each other crazy, made arguments about how their job and the group was worse off because of the other one, and made meetings uncomfortable. More than once, they individually expressed a lot of frustrated emotion.
Two managers of the business thought that one or the other should be fired, and the managers’ arguments loosely revolved around the “good of the business.”
I was charged with making the situation better, and the owner of the company was quite clear that I had to do something that would “make” the tense workplace arguments and complaining stop.
Although the owner’s attitude of using sticks (and few carrots) represented a larger issue that plagued the company, the “solution” to the unhappy employees was not one that anyone could force. Anyone from a military commander to a parent of a teenager knows that force – as in a direct order “because I’m in charge” – is borderline useless to creating lasting change.
Everything related to force – threats, fear, intimidation, making an example out of someone – can only result in a short-term (and sometimes very short) change because resentment builds quickly and the collective mind is damaged.1One sure way to get your employees LinkedIn activity going is to remind them that you’re the boss, and that they had better do it, or else.
The two fighting employees is just a specific example of the eternal leadership challenge: what is the best way to guide and catalyze positive development that leads to success? A leader faces this question in all parts of a business, from disgruntled employees to the finest details of the company vacation policy. Every detail matters.
The only way to achieve long-term success is to create a culture that supports each person deciding for themselves how to act, and that those actions reflect the benefit of the group as a whole. Where does culture like that come from? Good leadership, one that centers on responsibility, accountability and dedication outside of the self, does this exactly.2More on this: Our Culture of Imitation.
There is no formula to solve combative employees, no numbered list from a Google search or a specific page from a management conference handout that will cover disagreements. Specific strategies like those almost always fail because every situation is different, just as there’s no way to create a Car Repair and Supervisor Step-by-Step Guide that will work.
However, we do have leadership values and common goals, and although they are sometimes unspecific, the ideas and goals are valuable for the leader and the employees. The basic path: find out where you are and where you want to go, evaluate what you’re doing, make changes and improvements that create the best outcome possible by including conscious activity to not fall into the same trap again. I’ve found it best to start with this approach, and that’s what I did.
“Why, actually, do you come to work?” That’s what I asked each employee, in separate conversations, and I made sure to be very respectful of their emotions and pose the question as a curiosity. Unlike the exasperated parent (trust me, I’ve been there) who lest loose with “What the hell were you thinking?” I made each person know that I had no idea what their answers were. It was the truth – how could I know, it was their life. I wasn’t posing a rhetorical question to prove a point and then “make” them behave professionally. Instead I wanted the question to encourage each of them to connect with their purpose of being there and put less focus on the what the other person was doing.
Over a few days, we gave a series of openly posed questions like that a chance to settle, and during that time I reinforced that not only was it important to me that they both make their reason clear to me, but it was actually way more important to make it clear to themselves.3A common psychological truth for all of us: naming something (fear, desire, etc.) is the only way we can work with them. I was open with them and they knew we were each talking about the same thing.
Once they had a reason to be there, clearly stated (and always up for revision). In short, the reasons were also goals, reasons why they wanted to work in that job with that business. They knew and accepted – because they had time to think and said it out loud – that they were at work for their reasons, and those reasons fit with their lives and with the purpose and goals of the company.
Their specific goals didn’t matter, there was no right answer to my questioning, and it wasn’t part of a formula such as “How to Get Your Team On Board.”
Now each employee could see not only where their actions matched what they wanted, but that – and here’s where the argumentative tension started to shift – they actually shared many goals. They could also see how their emotional conflict stemmed from mostly the erroneous perception that the other person was blocking their goal. Of course, they didn’t originally see their office arguments that way, but it was straightforward to show them that their own personal alarm had been going off because they had felt threatened, not because there was an actual threat.
It was also clear that a few of their respective goals were different and almost conflicted, but most people can easily understand and appreciate that forward progress comes from people with different ideas working together to produce the best possible outcome.4Okay, psychopaths don’t see it this way, but that’s a lot more rare than two employees each thinking that their department is the right one to sign off on project development steps. To be specific, they both shared a goal to get the highest quality products into as many people’s hands as possible. One way they differed was in some steps of the specific process. However, showing them how to support each other in the major goal made the process of their sorting out the difference actually productive and more likely that they would both achieve what they – and the company – wanted.
It wasn’t exactly an epiphany, but while talking to them together, there was a moment where they both sort of said, “huh . . . . “ and the tension between them dissipated. They could both see that they shared goals, the threat they each perceived wasn’t there, and they saw how to get what they wanted while working together.
As Shaun Peet and Mike Metcalf point out in their insightful book 12 Second Culture, good high-performance teams are not devoid of conflict, but it’s how that conflict is resolved that leads to achievement and success.
To be clear: I sincerely doubt that they are on each other’s holiday greeting card list – these two people are very different. But a leader’s job is not to make two people “cooperate” by forcing them to fall back into each other’s arms at a rented Boy Scout Camp while vigorously proclaiming with executive cheer that they are “there for each other.” That just doesn’t work. It’s leading, not forcing.
It’s quite possible that one or both of the employee’s goals could have turned out to be incompatible with the organization or even what the employee’s job was, but it rarely happens. It is enough for leaders to be aware of the possibility and figure out the best path from that.
A few months after the storm had subsided, one employee was talking to me about a project that might go sideways, and she made a dry comment about the other employee. Fearing a resurgence of the discontent, I asked her if everything was okay how it was going with him. The look on her face was like my high school algebra teacher when she could tell I had no idea how that part of math worked. “Of course, it’s fine. He’s really the one in the department who has my back.”
Leadership is a tricky, down-in-the-weeds experience that takes humility, patience and effort. We have to remember that our aim is to continuously set an example of working for the collective, and leading people to solutions so that they will make the exact same decision themselves.
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