Management S.O.S.: How to Mediate Disputes

Jan 24, 2019

By Paul Falcone

Every line manager in corporate America has felt frustrated over employee tensions and unresolved conflict. And let's face it: There's typically more than enough work that needs to be done without involving hurt feelings, resentment, and that walking-on-eggshells sensation that makes you feel more like a referee than a supervisor.

With the critical need for retention of key talent, however, managers have to find ways to get their people "plugged in" again or else face premature turnover. The reality, though, is that your staff members will almost always take the path of least resistance with each other—which is avoidance—rather than address problem issues head on. As the manager, you must intervene in a mediating role to ensure that a lack of communication doesn't lead to performance problems or turnover.

Pretending that a problem doesn't exist or allowing staff members to work out problems on their own may be a safe strategy when a new interpersonal conflict first arises; however, once that initial frustration has festered over time, it becomes time to step in.

The Solution
When two of your staff members are at war, meet with each individual separately and explain how you intend to resolve the problem:

“Sam, I'm meeting with you one-on-one and will do the same with Christina once you and I are done. I want you to understand how together we're going to resolve the underlying tension that's become fairly obvious between the two of you.

First, I'll want to hear your side of the story, and then I'll share that with Christina when we meet. I'll then want to hear Christina's side of the story, and I'll share her feedback with you before the three of us come together as a group. This way everyone will know everyone else's issues, or the what of it all, and we could come together and focus on how to resolve it.

In short, we'll solve this in three meetings: Our meeting right now, Sam, is the first one. My meeting with Christina right after we're done will be the second one. I'll follow up with you after that and give you her feedback. Finally, we'll have a third meeting this afternoon where we can talk this out together. Again, everyone will know the issues, so there won't be any surprises, and we'll solve this like adults, maintaining each other's respect and dignity. Are you clear on how I'm planning on handling this?”

Privately find out Sam's side of the story at that point. In your meeting with Sam, ask him why Christina may be feeling the way she does. Ask Sam what he'd like to see happen ideally in terms of his relationship with Christina, and then ask him what he'd be willing to change about his own behavior to elicit a different response from her in the future.  Afterward hold the same meeting with Christina, learn her side of the story, and then share her perceptions with Sam.

The third meeting where you all come together is where the proverbial rubber meets the road. Understanding that employees may be nervous or anxious that a serious escalation may occur, set the ground rules as follows:

“Okay, Sam and Christina, I've got two key ground rules that we all have to follow before we begin.

First, you shouldn't hold anything back. This is your chance to get it all out in the open, and if you withhold anything, then you'll have missed a golden opportunity to share your side of the story. You're not going to get another chance to readdress these pent-up issues and frustrations in the future. After our meeting today, I'm re-welcoming you both to the company as if it were your first day of employment. I'm also holding you both accountable for reinventing your working relationship from that point forward. Understood? [Yes.]

Second, everything that you share has to be said with the other person's best interests in mind and in a spirit of constructive criticism. There is no attacking and no need for defending in this meeting; this is really more a sensitivity session where you both get to walk a mile in the other's moccasins and hear firsthand how the other is feeling. Do I have your agreement on both of these ground rules? [Yes.]”

Setting up a meeting with these qualifiers automatically deescalates feelings of angst or anger in the participants. It also gives you the chance to take a gentle approach to interpersonal issues that, like scars, sometimes run long and deep.

Special Note
During the group meeting, you'll sometimes notice that each employee will first address his or her concerns directly to you—the mediator. It will be as if the other person weren't even there. Third-person "he-she" discussions need to be changed into an "I-you" dialogue. To accomplish this shift in audience, simply stop the conversation as soon as one of the participants begins speaking about the other in the third person. Ask the individual to speak directly to the other person as if you weren't there. That may appear a little challenging for the participants at first, especially if emotions are running high, but direct communication works best. After all, you're helping them fix their problem.

In addition, you should encourage your two staff members to use the phrases "this is how I feel" and "can you understand why I would feel that way?" Feelings aren't right or wrong—they just are. Since perception is reality until proven otherwise, it's each individual's responsibility to sensitize the other regarding the existence of perceptions that have developed over time.

Knowing that guilt will allow for the assumption of partial responsibility for an imperfect situation, that element of accountability will serve as the seed of goodwill that helps heal old wounds. For example, if Christina feels bad about her relationship with Sam, shares with him why she feels the way she does, and admits that it takes two to tango and that she's part of the problem, then Sam will likely respond positively to the olive branch that Christina's extending.

Once you've pierced the heart of the combatants, so to speak, then the battle is won. You'll know you're there when they're talking to each other, agreeing that they've got a problem on their hands, and demonstrating a willingness to fix it. These kinds of management interventions aren't normally investigations of fact-finding. Instead, there are sensitivity training sessions where goodwill and openness naturally heal the wounds associated with ego and principal.

Conclude the meeting this way:
“Christina and Sam, you've both heard the other side of the story now. I'm not asking you to become best friends, but I'm insisting that you both demonstrate respect and open communication toward each other at work from this point forward.

I'll end this meeting with two questions. First, do I have your commitment that you'll view the other with goodwill and assume good intentions from this point forward? Second, do you both understand that if the situation doesn't improve and the work flow is negatively impacted in any way, my response next time may result in formal progressive discipline rather than a goodwill sit-down like this?”

And voilà—you'll have given both employees their day in court, so to speak, where each vents and shares perceptions of the problem. You'll end the meeting on a constructive note where both agree to change their behavior. And you'll also create a healthy sense of paranoia where both realize that if the problem surfaces again, there may be a more formal management response—most likely in the form of a written warning. Congratulations! You've treated your warring parties as adults and held them accountable for fixing the perception problem on their hands.

Remember, no matter how much you care, you can't manage their differences. Only they can do that. Still, you can provide a forum for solving employee disputes that brings out the best in people. Establishing a culture of openness means confronting people problems in an environment that's safe and that maintains the individual's dignity. It enhances your position as a leader and establishes your reputation as a fair arbiter of disagreements. There's no better formula for employee retention than treating people with respect, dignity, and a caring ear.

© 2009 Paul Falcone.  Excerpted by permission of the publisher, from 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees.  Published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association.

About the Author(s)

Paul Falcone is Vice President of Employee Relations at Time Warner Cable in Los Angeles.  His most recent book, from which this article is excerpted, is 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees (AMACOM, 2009).