One of the toughest calls I’ve had to make as a manager is when to intervene in conflicts between employees. My instinctive first reaction is to just let the involved parties work it out, maybe with a bit of nudging, and I still believe that’s usually the best approach to diffusing low-level staff friction.
But there’s no predictable result when it comes to juggling employees’ egos and emotions, and stepping into a disagreement between staff members is the most unnerving manifestation of this uncertainty. If you jump in too quickly, you’re treating your employees like children who can’t solve problems. Wait too long, and you’re shirking managerial responsibility and letting a problem fester—and fester it will, often causing extreme and possibly even irreparable damage.
This stuff is just no fun any way you slice it.
Before rushing in, I try to apply this simple litmus test: Does the problem focus mostly on personality, or is it an issue of process and productivity? I’ve found that in most cases, work-related conflicts tend to be at the root of personal spats, so I seldom hesitate to offer some tactical tip about how to iron out that kind of bump—although my first tip is usually to ask the involved parties to get together and send me an e-mail about how they’ve decided to work out the issue. If the problem boils down mainly to personality, I usually listen for about 10 minutes, refrain from any judgmental statements, and ask for patience from whoever is doing the complaining.
If only it were that easy. The bottom line is that no matter what you do, your involvement as a manager in any conflict will tend to escalate the situation—it’s the Uncertainty Principle in action. So you’ve got to be wily about picking up on tips employees drop and realize they're more frustrated and upset than they're telling you, or that the situation has gotten out of hand.
I’ve learned to ask myself the following questions to estimate the risk level of an employee conflict, and what (if any) action I should take to mitigate the situation. It’s a highly imperfect science, and the answers I find are useful only in conjunction with my acquired experience and intuition about how my team works. But at least they're a starting point.
Can you tie a missed deadline or other production issue to the conflict?
This one is really a “canary in a coal mine” test to see if you’re already behind schedule for jumping in. If a conflict—no matter what its nature—is stopping your team from completing its mission, you should have been involved yesterday. Step carefully at this point, because even if the problem is largely process or productivity oriented, it’s probably escalated to the personality level by now. Be cautious, but it’s clearly time to act.
Do they keep repeating, “I really like so-and-so, but…”?
I’ve learned to shrink in fear from this seemingly harmless comment from employees. If someone protests too much that a conflict is not personality oriented, then you can bet that it probably is.
Are others not involved in the conflict being exposed to “collateral damage”?
One surefire signal that you need to get involved in a conflict is if employees are getting tense with each other in front of other employees. Blowups at status meetings or hallway rumbles are clearly out of bounds—this is one area where you absolutely can put your foot down with no self-recrimination. Don’t wait for someone to complain directly to you before you act.
Is everything really quiet over there?
The worst staff blowups I’ve ever been involved in came as a complete surprise to me. When you hear quiet rumblings that there is some problem between employees, don’t just think they will naturally work it out themselves. I tend to be uneasy about snooping on my team members, so I’ve come to rely on trusted peers in manager ranks as sources for info about brewing trouble on my horizon. You will be stunned by the scuttlebutt a trusted lateral partner knows about what’s going on with your team. A lot of it will be nonsense, of course, but just the presence of such murmuring is a good sign that some action is in order.
Are the people involved in the conflict at the same level in the company?
No matter how informal the culture at your workplace, most ground-level staff members are uncomfortable in even minor conflicts with people who are even a little further up the food chain. If you hear that an employee is having a problem with a manager, talk to the manager to make sure everything is cool, and give the manager a pointer or two about how to handle the situation. If the employee comes to you with concerns, listen but tread very carefully—these kinds of situations can blow up in a hurry. Give HR a head’s up on what you plan to do, and if things escalate, seriously consider escalating the matter to formal HR channels.
Is the conflict entirely within your team, or are lateral relationships involved?
I’m actually most hesitant to jump into a conflict when it involves one of my team members and someone from another team. First, there’s a good chance that the problem is truly process-oriented, since the two people in question likely don’t spend a ton of time together (this may not be the case in some lateral relationships, such as a PM and developer). There’s probably a good chance that the situation will diffuse itself naturally in these situations. And I’ve found that my involvement tends to make my own employees sensitive about being undermined in the eyes of other teams.
Knowing when to step in on a disagreement between staff members is never an easy decision. But maybe these tips will help.
Ken Hardin is a freelance writer and business analyst with more than two decades in technology media and product development. Before founding his own consultancy, Clarity Answers LLC, Ken was a member of the start-up team and an executive with TechRepublic.com and ITBusinessEdge.com.