Wait to step in: Employees should try to resolve conflicts first

It seems so helpful, so kind, and so innocent. Without even knowing it, you may have stepped into the Bermuda Triangulation of Conflict. What starts out to be a three-hour cruise can turn into a shipwreck.

The triangulation occurs when someone comes to complain about a coworker. The damage can get even worse if one of your supervisors’ employees comes to complain about him or her.

Many managers tell me that they welcome employee complaints and have an open door policy, which is fine as a general practice. But where they capsize is when they unwittingly step into the conflict too soon, without following some simple guidelines.

First, some basic principles that will make your workplace a healthier place and help you know what to do when it looks like your ship may steer off course:

Employees should try to resolve their own disputes first, before coming to their manager.

While you may have good intentions to react and solve your employees’ problems for them, it is often the wrong thing to do. You need to set the expectation that your employees are adults who should work things out with their coworkers. If you jump in too soon, your employees will be only too happy to let you take responsibility for resolving every issue and they will sit on the sidelines and critique your performance.

Unfortunately, as soon as a boss steps in, the intensity of the storm increases because the other party feels that their coworker has tattled on them. If you find that you have a continuous line of employees outside your door, you probably have fallen into the Mommy or Daddy trap: “Come to me. I’ll fix everything.”

Managers should use complaints as an opportunity to teach their employees how to handle conflicts, rather than jump in and do it for them.

If one of your employees comes to you for help with a conflict, start teaching by asking questions:

  • “What have you said or done thus far?”
  • “Why do you think this person is angry with you?”
  • “How has it affected the customer?”
  • “What do you think you could do that would help solve this?”
  • “What could you say to him or her?”

One of the most effective ways to help your employees is to guide them through a thought process about their own responsibility, approach and what they could say to the other person. You may want to role play how they would say it. Then ask the person to report back once they have completed the conversation. This guarantees that they follow through and gives you another opportunity to help them with the next step.

Don’t be too quick to side with one person or the other.

Once you have asked probing questions, you will probably discover that the complainer played a part in the conflict. Your best strategy is to get out of your work area more often and make it a point to observe the circumstances first hand. Secondary complaints are usually a sign that you are too removed from what is going on.

Anonymous complaints, such as, “Here’s what my coworker did that upset me but you can’t tell him I complained about him. Now, I want you to go talk to him,” are destined to steer your ship off course.

If you become the mouthpiece of the anonymous complainer, you will only make things worse. The offending party will say, “What do you mean some of my coworkers complained about me? What did they say and who was it?” It’s human nature to want to hunt down the complainers and confront them, “Why didn’t you tell me directly?” The person will be suspicious and hostile toward the team and will be resistant and resentful.

When a person comes to you and says, “Don’t tell him it was me,” ask the complaining employee, “How would you feel if I told you there were anonymous complaints being lodged against you? Would you want to find out who complained? Would you be receptive and eager to change? Would you be able to continue to trust your teammates?”

Instead, suggest that he or she make the first attempt to discuss the problem directly with the other employee, with help from you on the sidelines. Then, if things don’t improve, you may step in. If they don’t feel abandoned on a desert island, the complainer may be more willing to take steps to resolve the problem on his or her own.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee-based executive coach, organizational and leadership development strategist. She has a proven track record spanning more than 20 years, and is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Email your question to Joan at info@joanlloyd.com and visit www.JoanLloyd.com to search an archive of more than 1500 of Joan’s articles. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 354-9500.

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