How should you respond when two of your colleagues are fighting? Amy Gallo explores the protocol and etiquette of conflict management in her article for the HBR Blog Network.
Workplace conflict can be complicated. Sure, if you manage the two co-workers who are fighting, it is your duty to intervene. But if they are your peers, the situation is far less clear cut.
So when should you intervene and when should you stay out of it? Sometimes the decision is taken out of your hands. If one or both colleagues comes to you for help then you will have to get involved one way or another.
Similarly, if the fight is disrupting everyone’s work, you need to intervene, advises career counsellor and executive coach Anna Ranieri.
But “peer-to-peer conflict is often fuzzy”, warns Roderick Kramer, a social psychologist and the William R. Kimball Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. It can be difficult to work out who is responsible for the disagreement and you can soon find yourself in over your head.
Here are some guidelines for successful conflict management:
• Listen. The first step you can take is to listen to the complaint. Sometimes just allowing colleagues to vent their frustration can be enough. Often, providing people with a safe place to express their annoyance will give them the space to work out a solution on their own. But try not to encourage a culture of venting and gossiping, warns Kramer, as this will not help solve the root problem.
Also, make sure you hear both sides of the story. If you work in a small team, it will be obvious to all if you have spoken to one of the parties. Make it clear to the other colleague that you are open to hearing their side too.
• Empathise. But never take sides. While your colleague is complaining to you, it is important that you express empathy, but this doesn’t mean you should openly agree with them.
Show them that you understand how they are feeling with statements such as: “I’m really sorry this is happening,” or, “It’s difficult when two people can’t get on.” And offer neutral observations like: “Joe is a very direct person and can sometimes come over as being harsh.”
If you are being pushed into taking sides, explain that you cannot and will not do that, because you have to work with both colleagues.
• Explain. It is important that you explain how the fight is affecting everyone on the team. Make it clear that the conflict is hard for everyone and that it is getting in the way of your work. This can help motivate both parties to take some constructive action to solve their differences.
• Carefully offer your advice. Some people might not want your opinion, so always ask before you offer it. You might think you have all the answers, but be aware that your perspective might not be desired or required. Ask your colleagues if they would find it helpful if you suggested some ways forward. But be aware you might not find a feasible solution. Just because a particular conflict resolution approach worked for you, it might not work for them.
• Problem-solve. If your advice is welcome, then offer to problem-solve together. Brainstorm all the possible options for resolving the conflict. Make observations rather than concrete suggestions about how to move forward.
“You should be more in problem-solving mode than gossip mode,” advises Kramer.
• Avoid “duking it out”. Sitting the two parties down together in a room is likely to further damage their relationship. This approach is just not responsible, Kramer argues. One party is generally stronger than the other and the result will not be a fair fight.
If the argument has become very heated, however, then your only option might be pulling all three of you into a room together.
• Beware of “Yes, but”. Some people refuse to be helped, says Ranieri. Psychotherapists call them “Yes, but” clients – people who always place an obstacle before a solution: “Yes, I could talk to Jane but I think she should approach me first.”
If one of the parties refuses help or insists that he or she is in the right, the best thing you can do is pull back for now.
The next time they approach you with the complaint you can explain that, although you have discussed the situation numerous times together, they do not seem ready to resolve the conflict, and leave it at that.
• Don’t involve the boss. Both experts agree that involving your colleagues’ boss is rarely a good idea. Reporting the conflict will only serve to magnify it, anger the involved parties and make you part of the problem.
If you really are stuck as to what to do next, you could try asking your own superior for advice – but only as a last resort.
• Know when to quit. Remember your limits, advises Kramer. If you feel uncomfortable with the situation or the argument, walk away.
Rainieri agrees, commenting: “Make sure you take care of yourself. You don’t have to be an unpaid referee.”
If you do decide to disentangle yourself, try to exit with the suggestion of a next step for your colleagues – perhaps they could meet with an objective third party, such as someone from HR.