Advice on mediating employee conflict for managers


Dear Joan,
I am dealing with two employees, both in different departments, who for some reason don’t get along. They started off working great together and then turned to the worst of co-workers. I am trying to get them back on track but need your advice to do so. Do you know of any type of coaching I could possibly offer to help them get back on track?
They say, “There’s no wrath like a woman scorned,” and I say “ditto” to a co-worker trust that is betrayed. Since they are in two different departments, I suspect you wouldn’t be concerned about it unless they had to work together. You may not repair the friendship but you can work toward a peace treaty that will meet the needs of the business. 

First, you will need to enlist the assistance—or at least the support—of the other person’s manager. Since you will be mucking around in his or her turf, you don’t want to overstep the other manager. In addition, you will probably need the other manager’s influence and authority when it comes time for an action plan. 

First, meet with each person individually. Start out by explaining that you realize they don’t get along but they must find a way to co-exist peacefully, for the good of the team and the business. Next, explain that you would like to understand the nature of the conflict and so you will be asking them some questions. Finally, you will expect the person to take responsibility for resolving the matter so they can co-exist. Explain that you will facilitate the process but they are responsible for the outcome. 

The first thing you will hear out of each of them is how the other person wronged them. Here is where you will set some ground rules. Explain that you will ask a few questions of each of them and then you will bring them both together and ask the same questions and facilitate a discussion. The ground rules are: 

  • No personal accusations—stay focused on the facts
  • No passing judgment or guessing motives of the other person
  • Take responsibility for your part of the problem
  • Find a solution that will allow the work to get done
  • Keep this private and don’t discuss it with others 

Then, ask questions such as: 

  1. What is the problem? How does it affect the work?
  2. What are the root causes?
  3. What have you done to contribute to the problem?
  4. What is your common purpose?
  5. What do you need from her/him to achieve that purpose? Have you told the person?
  6. What have you done (or could you do) to resolve this? 

You should probably set aside a half-day to have the two interviews and facilitate the meeting (do this in neutral territory, such as a conference room) If you stretch it over several days, it could unravel. You don’t want to give them time to fret about the process, badmouth the other person, lobby their own manager, or threaten to quit. The key is to get it done before they have a chance to think about it and object. 

Discuss with the other manager if he/she should attend the meetings. (It may make the parties feel ganged up on.) If he or she isn’t going to attend the meeting, the manager needs to convey to their employee that he/she supports your process and will support the outcome. 

For the interviews, you may want to print out a copy of the ground rules and the questions. Then for the joint meeting, they each will have an agenda in hand, to help guide the discussion. 

When you call them together, add three more ground rules:

  • Ask them to paraphrase what the other person said before responding. (This will force them to listen to each other, instead of merely rebutting. Ask each of them to summarize what the other person said, or restate, first.)
  • Ask them to look at each other instead of at you. (They will naturally want to ignore each other, like two opposing magnets, and appeal to you as judge and jury. Refuse to allow this to happen. When one of them looks at you, say, “I’d like you to tell her…” and then look at the other person. Or, say, “It doesn’t matter what I think. It matters what she thinks…tell her.” Or, “I’m not the one who can solve this issue…you both are responsible. Talk to each other.”)
  • Come up with a solution you can both live with. (It doesn’t have to be perfect but if it’s a compromise or is perceived as too one-sided, the truce won’t last.) 

Call the other manager into the room and ask the two parties to summarize what they have both agreed to do. Get the support and agreement of the other manager. 

Usually, this is enough to get a feud resolved. However, if the cold war persists, tell the pair, “I don’t care if you like each other but you have to co-exist professionally to get the work done. If you can’t reach a mutual solution that will allow the work to get done efficiently and effectively, it will have a negative consequence for you both. Teamwork is important around here, and this could affect your performance reviews and even your merit increase. And if it continues, or gets worse, it could result in disciplinary action for both of you. Now, what steps are each of you going to take responsibility for?” 

It will take a firm, calm approach at the negotiating table to get the results you need. But in the end, if they don’t resolve it, negotiation ends and you and your fellow manager should decide how to proceed. That’s why you must keep the other manager informed and involved in the process all along the way. 

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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