Some right and wrong approaches to feuding, fussing, fighting

Dear Joan:
I have a bad situation growing and I hope you can give me some help with it before it gets out of hand. I am a supervisor in a small (five person) department. There are two people in our office that are at war. I'm not sure how it started and I don't even know exactly what the problem is. I suspect it is just a personality conflict because they are very different personalities. One woman is very assertive and the other is very quiet.

The assertive one will come to me and complain about the other one not pulling her weight. Then the other one comes to me and complains that her co-worker is sticking her nose into her business. They both seem to be doing their jobs, although I must admit the assertive one does get more done. They both have to work together and the conflict is starting to affect other people in our department. One of them came to me yesterday and suggested that I do something because she can't stand it. She says that when they don't talk to each other, she is forced to be the "go-between." Do you have any advice? I've talked to them both and told them they had to work together and it lasts a short time and then they're at it again.

What approach would you take, if you were this manager?

1.      Emphasize the need to work as a team in a staff meeting.

2.      Hire a consultant to come in and do a teambuilding workshop.

3.      Get them together in your office and get it all out on the table.

4.      Talk to each one separately and get their story before deciding what action you're going to take.

5.      Tell them both to knock it off or they will be in danger of losing their jobs.

6.      Tell them to go into a conference room and not to come out until it is resolved.

Conflicting goals, differing work styles, the pressure of deadlines, different quality standards all create a steamy stew of diversity in any workplace. When the mix goes bad between a few people, it can leave a sour taste in everyone's mouth. And well-meaning managers can inadvertently "stir the pot" if they are clumsy in their approach.

Let's take a close up look at how some well-meaning managers get themselves in trouble.

·        Avoid it and it will go away
This approach is the most popular, and with good reason. Everyone hates to get involved in these things. Managers fear that an intervention will escalate the mess into a full-blown war. There will be tears. Someone could quit. So they take the path of least resistance. They mention it at a team meeting and hope (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) that the offending parties will get the hint and clean up their act. The problem is that the guilty parties often don't think their manager is talking about them! Meanwhile, everyone else is rolling their eyes and asking, "Why is he telling us? Why isn't he telling them?"

Another version of this is the teambuilding retreat. A group setting is not an appropriate place to resolve an issue such as this, although sometimes an experienced outside facilitator (who doesn't know about it in advance) will smoke out an issue like this and deal with it off-line.

·        Playing daddy or mommy
This is a no-win strategy. It goes something like this: one employee complains about a co-worker so the manager talks to one or each of them separately to hear their stories. Much like the parent who hears, "He's pinching me!" or "She's being mean to me!" the manager ends up telling them to "Get along!" or "Be nice to each other!" Inevitably, each of the parties tries to get the manager on his side and cries favoritism if their particular version of the story isn't taken as the "correct" one.

Even when a manager takes a completely objective approach, when he or she imposes the solution, it still feels parental to the employees. The goal is to have the employees take responsibility for a shared solution. The goal is for the manager to stop trying to solve everyone's problems for them.

·        Let 'em duke it out
Although it may seem that the best way to put an end to a conflict is to "get it all out on the table" or lock the feuding parties in a room until they're friends, it rarely works. There will be blood on the floor. The two fighters are emotionally charged and will likely say things that will push things over the edge. Typically, the more assertive or verbally skilled person will have an unfair advantage over the other person, causing the less assertive person to shut down and even walk out. Often, by the time the situation gets to this level, even mature, rational adults will lose control without a safer, more controlled environment.

Here's one approach that often works:

·        Tell them both that you will be facilitating a discussion between them. If one of them balks ("I'm not going to talk to her!" or "I’ve already talked to him and she won't listen!") be firm and say, "I know it won't be easy but I expect both of you to share the responsibility for resolving this."

·        Start the meeting with some groundrules. Examples: focus on the problem not on the person, listen and paraphrase each other, come up with a solution you can all live with, talk to each other rather than to the manager, and so on.

·        Spell out the process:

1.      Each of them will have time to talk, without interruption from the other person.

2.      When finished, each of them will be asked to restate and paraphrase what the other person said.  (This must be done to the satisfaction of the person who is being paraphrased.)

3.      The manager then asks each one, "What is the desired outcome you want?"

4.      The manager asks for solution ideas that will meet the desired outcomes. (If none are forthcoming, the manager imposes solutions and sets expectations for each of them.)

5.      The manager asks each of them to summarize what they have agreed to do.

6.      A follow-up date is set to review progress.


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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