When and how to intervene if your team doesn’t get along
Simmer things down when everyone in your office is at risk of boiling over.
As the boss, one of your main goals is to create a workplace that fosters collaboration, encouragement, and unity. Sounds simple enough, right? But human beings are far from simple. Conflict in the workplace can make your job much more trying.
Sometimes, despite your best efforts to ensure everyone works well together, there are employees who just can’t seem to get along with each other. And if you don’t handle the situation, it can wreak havoc on an otherwise solid workplace.
“These days people leave their jobs because of ineffective leaders and toxic work teams, even more so than for low pay,” says Marcia Reynolds, author of The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations Into Breakthroughs. “And they will stay with good leaders and teams they enjoy working with even if they are offered more money elsewhere.”
Follow these tips to help your direct reports mend fences and move forward.
Address the situation
“The fact that people disagree isn’t a bad thing,” says Amy Gallo, author of the HBR Guide to Managing Conflict at Work. “It’s how we manage conflict in the workplace that can be damaging to productivity.”
However, not every little squabble requires you to get involved. For everyday friction that occurs at work, give people space to disagree and work things out. But when a disagreement becomes personal, or when it’s affecting the work, then it’s time for you to intervene.
The first step to finding peace: Talk to both parties separately, says Lindred Greer, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.
Start with one-on-one conversations, Gallo says, and help each person do the important initial work of “seeing the other person’s perspective, understanding their own emotions, and preparing for the conversation.”
Your job is to make sure you have the complete story and to give everyone a chance to voice their grievances. “Often conflicts erupt because one person doesn’t feel heard,” Gallo says. “Just making someone feel heard can help.”
Ask meaningful questions
It can be difficult for someone to put into words exactly why they feel slighted. “Most of us have a very limited emotional vocabulary,” Gallo explains. To help employees dig deeper and better understand their own feelings about the situation, ask questions that focus on their emotions. For example, “if you’re disappointed versus angry, you’re going to act very differently,” Gallo says.
You also want to ask questions to help each person take the other’s perspective regarding conflict in the workplace. Gallo suggests asking, “What do you think is going on with her?” or, “What’s making him act that way?” If your employee is not immediately able to come up with realistic answers, keep pushing: “What else could be going on? What could be an alternate theory?” Help them open their mind to other viewpoints and perspectives that could help foster understanding.
Finally, ask questions to bring out what behavioral psychologists call efficacy—show team members that they have the power to solve the problem. Ask them, “What’s something you could do to make this situation better?”
Through asking meaningful questions, Gallo says, you’re helping the employee understand their own nuanced feelings, see the other person’s perspective, and pinpoint something they can do about it. They will walk away feeling heard and empowered.
Once you’ve helped each side to gain a bit of clarity, encourage them to talk with each other privately, communicating to each other what they have each separately communicated to you. Express confidence that they can work out their differences and find resolution on their own. Be careful about acting as a direct mediator between two employees. “Only insert yourself if they ask you to be there,” Gallo says.
After the immediate disagreements are addressed, map out a plan to help everybody stay on the same page. Help your employees identify what group success looks like—and how success for the group is different than individual success, says Reynolds. With a shared mission statement that everyone believes in, you can rally your team to work toward that mission together in harmony.
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