When it comes to workplace conflicts many managers tell employees to “work it out themselves.” On the contrary, it's specifically the manager's job to solve it.
This is another one of my articles that you’ll want your manager to read but will probably have to send anonymously. I meet so many employees who have workplace conflicts with co-workers but get no support from their managers.
The source of workplace conflicts is varied. Politics tops the list, as your co-worker may see you as a threat or could simply want to have more control or authority than you. Sometimes it's a personality issue. This could be due to a difference in values or communication, or in other ways that some pairs of people are just oil and water. I’ve had a few situations where someone felt slighted because I didn’t hire their unqualified friend for my team or didn’t buy the product their buddy tried to sell the company. The relationship just went downhill after that.
Many managers don’t want to deal with such conflicts. Their solution is to tell their employees to “work it out.” I get it; managers will tell you the hardest part of the job are the people's issues. If you have to deal with interpersonal squabbles, which are draining, you have less time and energy for the operational work. Telling people to work it out themselves helps to “grow” them and relieve you of one more headache.
If you want to pursue that strategy, there’s a simple two-step process. Step 1: tell them to work it out themselves. Step 2: resign, because you have neither the desire nor competency to be a manager. I’m serious, if this is your strategy, you should not be a manager.
When you take a job, you are there to deal with the problems and challenges that come with the role.
When you take a job, you are there to deal with the problems and challenges that come with the role. If you go into sales, you will face rejection by customers. If you work in software development, don’t complain if you run into software bugs. You don’t have to like that part of the job, but you do have to address it.
Being a manager doesn’t just mean you get to order people around and have them deal with problems. Quite the opposite, better managers motivate, not command. Their job is to deal with the bigger problems the team faces, and people problems are the biggest problems there are.
This is a problem no different than an operational one your employee might be facing; you need to help them with this type of problem just as you do with that type of problem. Consider an accountant having a problem balancing the books, a software engineer stuck on a bug, a salesperson unable to close a prospect; their managers should step in and help them if the employee can’t resolve it. If the same problem comes up month after month, then there’s a different issue of competency or learning, but a manager’s job includes being a backstop when an employee is stuck with a problem. People problems are no different.
Most parents of multiple children have to break up fights between the kids. The reality is the cause of the fights are not evenly split. One person tends to be the instigator more than the other. (In my family, it was me. Apologies to my brother for every time I crossed the line down the middle of the backseat of the car, and every other time I instigated things.) Unfortunately, sometimes exasperated parents who can’t figure out who started it will simply send both kids to their rooms, when really one is much more at fault. This isn’t great parenting. It’s not good managing either.
Unlike the backseat of the car where you couldn’t see who hit who first, if you put the time and effort on digging into the issue you can get to the root of it. Yes, it takes significant time, and emotional energy, but the payoff is you understand the root cause of the people issues and can address it to prevent it from coming back. Chances are this issue between two people that you don’t want to deal with won’t be the last. If the server keeps crashing, you need to dig into the code, find the root cause and fix it. It might be a small change, or it might mean replacing a whole part of the system. Likewise, if two people are having an ongoing conflict it could be a misunderstanding or it might mean a personnel change. Either way, you need to spend time getting to the root of it, so you fix the right problem.= and not simply cover it up until it pops up again causing you more headaches.
Being a manager doesn’t just mean you get to order people around and have them deal with problems.
If you have someone relatively inexperienced, you may suggest they try to resolve it themselves, perhaps with a little coaching. Anyone with any real work experience presumably can’t get it resolved. They either never learned how in the first, or this is a situation beyond their skill set. In either case, as the manager, it’s your problem now.
If they didn’t learn how, then you need to coach them through it (“them” may be one party or both parties). For the first situation or two it may be you mediating and then helping the parties learn what you did and why, not unlike playing a card game hands up to show how it’s done.
If they know how to resolve issues generally, they may still not be able to solve this specific issue. It’s beyond their experience and capabilities. This can happen at any level, including executive. Sometimes the conflict is a co-worker who simply wants something not appropriate, for example a co-worker who wants you to run your team differently because she thinks she knows better. You believe you’re running your team well and there’s a clear conflict because there are two inconsistent options, i.e., who gets to decide how your team is run. It’s usually a little more subtle, like a colleague asking you to do something a certain way that is costly. For example, the colleague might ask for additional details in a report you’re creating, pointing out that he is the one who uses the report, so you should listen to what he wants and do what he asks. However, to include those details would be a lot of additional work which would conflict with your other responsibilities given to you by your manager. In this case it may be that only your manager can resolve the prioritization of what she has asked you to do versus what the colleague is asking for.
This is a very common case. A co-worker is asking for something which is in direct conflict with what your manager has asked you to do. The “ask” by your manager doesn’t have to be explicit, it may simply be your understanding of your role. Any time you’re being asked to do something in conflict with the role your manager is expected to do, only your manager (or someone higher up) has the authority to change her expectations of you; you can’t change it on your own, even if your co-worker is implicitly asking you to.
It would be great if employees could resolve interpersonal problems by themselves. It would be equally great if seven-year-olds could do the same. Don’t hold your breath for either to happen.
If you have very junior employees, or those who can’t take initiative then, like young children, they may come to you to resolve every little problem. In that case you need to help them, as would a parent, to learn to do it themselves. But in most cases, I’ve seen, it's more complex. If it’s hard for you, the manager, consider that it’s even harder for your employees. You might think they have more information than you so should be able to resolve it, but they likely have other things getting in the way like unspoken constraints (things not known to each of the other parties in the conflict), baggage (emotional history from similar situations), limited perspective (less knowledge than you about the bigger picture), and more. Again, this is why you are here.
It would be great if employees could resolve interpersonal problems by themselves. It would be equally great if seven-year-olds could do the same. Don’t hold your breath for either to happen. In both cases the senior person (parent, manager) has more experience, training, visibility, and/or authority to resolve the disagreement. If you don’t want to deal with seven-year-olds fighting, don't be a parent. If you don’t want to handle interpersonal conflicts between your employees, don’t be a manager. If you are one, then it’s time to step up to the plate and do the job you asked for.
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