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I have been managing teams where many a times I receive complaints from one team member about the other.

The most common complaint being - rude / arrogant behavior or not helping out when any help is sought.

For some years I have been blindly handling such situations by getting both parties involved into a face to face discussion in a conference room.

Now I realize - that at times this leads to further conflicts where one of the two sulks and goes into a shell.

Would a better way be to only talk to each warring party separately and give my suggestions / recommendations / advise without getting into a face to face discussion?

  • 1
    As the manager who is acting as mediator, you actually have power over these two. You can tell the sulking party "hey, you can't walk out on me like that!" and you can rule on who is right about what. Fact is, you can't do any mediating if one of the parties cuts off all communication and goes into radio silence. If you are going to have a hope of resolving anything, you have to keep them talking by whatever means necessary. They can scream, they can yell, they can cry but what they can't do is go silent. And if it can be done, they can't leave the room until some resolution is reached. – Vietnhi Phuvan Apr 10 '14 at 12:55
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    As an introvert and someone who works with introverts I will say that I have never seen someone "sulk and go into their shell" unless they believe that their side is not being listened to and that they cannot meet their goals through further interaction (righty or wrongly). It could be a person who is immature, but given the language you used to describe this behavior I would be very careful about your approach, it could be very easily be interpreted as offensive by them, leading to a total shut down. – kleineg Apr 10 '14 at 14:32
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You've asked a question where there are about a million possible solutions, none of which will work all the time, some which will work better than others, and some which will never work. I'll just focus on what I believe will work, plus a couple danger points to avoid.

Here's some required reading on the subject of manager-employee communication and relationships:

http://randsinrepose.com/archives/the-update-the-vent-and-the-disaster/

No matter what...

If you are thinking about putting them together in a room, absolutely always talk to each first. Otherwise, you're essentially putting two volatile chemicals together completely blind. The only thing you know is that the two parties are likely to react -- but you don't know how, why, or what can sooth them.

When you talk to them first, try to get a feel for:

  • The story
  • The back story (what led up to it)
  • The history (the baggage)
  • Their values (as Wesley Long mentioned)
  • What they want out of the situation
  • What they really need out of the situation (like a customer, what they need and what they think they need are often very different things).

If it's not a "blow-up" yet...

If this problem has not blown up to the point that you know you've got some smoothing to do on each side...

e.g.

Bob complains to you that Alice is never helping out. Alice has no idea that Bob complained or is annoyed.

... then I would consider resolving this entirely in your own one-on-ones. At this point, you don't really stand to gain much by placing one person in defense against their accuser.

This situation mostly presumes that the "defendant" mostly had good intentions but by nature of some personality flaw (in either party) or miscommunication, has upset another person.

In your one-on-ones, I'd recommend discussing the values of your team (standard community values like "Assume good faith", "Be kind", etc. as well as whatever specific values you have).

First visit with the party that has the problem. I would take the approach of listening more than talking, and letting the employee talk themselves into a good solution. It's quite possible the conflict can disappear here.

If there is a need for you to address the behavior of the other person, for reasons such as:

  • The reporting/complaining party can't fix it on their own
  • Many different people have complained of the same behavior

... then have the one-on-one with the problem person. Try two approaches in order. 1) see if you can tease out a discussion about the behavior without telling them someone complained about them. That move will always put them on the defensive (and perhaps permanently, potentially degrading relationships forever), and should be avoided unless absolutely necessary. 2) If you can't see any other way for them to recognize an issue they can work on, you may bring up that this behavior has been noticed by others. I don't see much point in naming names, unless you have to.

If there's been a blow-up...

If one or both parties engaged in overtly inappropriate behavior for which they need to apologize, I recommend you first go through the above steps, get agreement from both about a course of action, and then bring the parties together to mediate a solution and apologize.

I can't see many situations where you will want to do this, but not involve HR; this is their domain and you probably want to defer.

This step (the one you've been doing for so long) is kind of like a nuclear bomb. I wouldn't recommend it, because you are forcing a confrontation. There are a few potential outcomes:

  • Both parties have already reconciled and you're dragging the issue through the mud again.
  • Unlikely: Both parties are ready to reconcile and you will mediate a successful resolution.
  • More likely: One or both parties are not ready to reconcile and you will at best get false buy-in to the resolution and at worst be mediating an actively volatile situation.

Bottom line

Workplaces are built on positive, constructive relationships and not by force. Therefore, "courts" or anything like them are unlikely to be a net win. They will exchange one problem for another.

Your best mediation will be to gently but firmly steer each person back towards desiring and actively working toward a positive relationship on their own.

In short, treat them like adults. Show them the benefits of harmony in the workplace. Show them the negative consequences of bad actions, if necessary. Let them figure out the correct behavior on their own. Avoid placing anyone in a defensive or uncomfortable situation.

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It seems you have had several of these face to face conversations and have not had success with them. For that reason it seems like it would be prudent to try a different tactic to deal with the issue. After all it is said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

I would probably change to regular one on one meetings. I would use these meeting to discuss more than just discipline issues. Use it to build your relationship with your team members, discuss any work issues they are having, and address problems proactively.

For your two team members that have the active conflict I would:

  • Identify the specific problems that the person complaining is having
  • Find a compromise position that would keep this conflict below the boiling point
  • manage their expectations to have them looking for small achievable changes
  • If the complainant has unreasonable expectations or is being overly sensitive to what is commonly considered acceptable behavior, then you need to explain that, and set out the expectation that the complainant is to become more tolerant of the behavior.
  • For the person that doing the offensive actions clarify that the actions are inappropriate and that you expect the expectations that their behavior will improve.
  • Identify how the complainant is acting that is aggravating the situation, because it is very rare in a situation like this that the problem is all one sided.
  • Explain how you expect the offender to act should the complainant repeat this behavior.
  • Address the issues that have been identified as aggravating the situation with the Complainant. Set out expectations for improvement and how you expect the complainant to act in these situations.

I would also explain to them both that this situation has gone on far to long and that if you do not see improved attitudes and interaction that the next time you will begin official disciplinary procedures.

From there keep an eye on their interactions and if you see something that could be starting try to diffuse the situation before it builds to the boiling point. It is my belief that when one or more of my reports needs to go down the official discipline road I have failed as much as they have. So to me it becomes my responsibility to stay on top of the issue until they have show they can work together constructively with out conflict.

If you see something building get them back together early before you feel compelled to take the disciplinary action. I would probably have the write up form on the table as a prop letting them realize you are serious and the person in control. But the goal of the meeting is to bring the conflict back to a peaceful state with out having to discipline anyone if possible.

Continue having the 1 on 1 meetings and talk about the successes as well as the failures you have observed. This should help to act as a guide for them to keep a path that is productive for your team.

And finally if either or both of them refuse to comply, you have to be willing to take what ever disciplinary action is appropriate. Your team is far more productive when they are relatively conflict free. If your reports refuse to be a part of that type of environment then your team needs you to take the necessary action to right the ship. Sometimes that means cutting out the cancer.

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You should continue to organise those discussions, as that is a good way to uncover grievances and deal with them in a private setting. I think you need to work on your role as a moderator, so the discussion can have a good result for all involved. This being said, a conflict has to be resolved, not just discussed. There has to be a resolution of the conflict in the end so that both parties can be at peace with one another.

  • Don't favour any party beforehand.
  • Do not ask leading questions. This might give off the impression you're siding with someone, unless you have a very good explanation why.
  • Be careful with probing questions with this as it can make it seem as if you're putting the blame on someone, depending on the choice of words. Probing questions are necessary at times though.
  • Make sure everyone gets to say what's on their mind. If you notice someone retracting into their shell, pull them out with directed questions. Emphasise that they're in a safe environment to talk.

    Sometimes it helps to pass around a puck and set the rule that only the person with the puck can talk. The moderator can always seize the puck with this method. (although seizing it is only a method of last resort)

    0

    Would a better way be to only talk to each warring party separately and give my suggestions / recommendations / advise without getting into a face to face discussion?

    I'd probably consider expanding the 1 on 1 discussions to include some of the other team members to see how are each of the people in the conflict perceived and how do others handle this stuff? Perhaps others on the team have similar issues that just aren't being discussed. The other side is that some may have ideas to pass along to the one that sulks as perhaps there are other ways to view the issue.

    Putting the two people together is likely just causing more hostility and distrust as someone may feel targeted here. If someone is often taunting me or treating me poorly, why in the world would I open up to that person? Carefully think about how would you want to ensure that things will be handled professionally and not another round of, "Let's say sorry and then I'll make you pay later!" which is how I could see this continuing in the future.

    -2

    I have seen and even been in the situation you are describing between your employees. What you have is a very mismatched set of expectations between these two.

    You have one employee who is expecting assistance with their assigned tasks, and another who is expecting each employee to do the work they are assigned. One sees the other as "arrogant" and "non-helpful" because the first party is expecting assistance from the second. The second party sees the first as "lazy," and perhaps "ignorant" and "freeloading" because they are not doing their assigned work, and are asking others to do it for them.

    The first thing you are going to have to do is determine what the truth of the matter is. Is the "arrogant" party doing everything they are assigned on their own? If so, they are probably expecting everyone else to do their assigned tasks on their own. Is the second party giving as much help as they are asking for? If so, they are probably a "collaborative" personality type.

    Now here's the kicker: They are both right, because they are both evaluating the situation by their own values. The real problem is that YOU have failed to communicate YOUR expectations. Do you want your team to be scalpels, who cut through all the impediments and do the assigned work quickly and efficiently, causing a little pain along the way, or do you want them to be bandages, who support an organic, self-healing process that is not as efficient, but pulls several resources together to accomplish the task? Both are equally valid approaches, but they are not compatible ones.

    The first thing you need to do is figure out if both are telling the truth. I would suspect that both are telling you the truth, as they see it. The "arrogant" person is tired of being interrupted to do "someone else's" work. The "lazy" person is feeling as though they don't have any support to work with. Look for specifics. Does the "arrogant" person ask for help but never give it, or are they a "one-man band" that takes a task, does it well, and moves on? Is the "lazy" person really just pushing off their assignments to other people, or are they spending as much time offering help to others as they are asking for on their own assignments? If you have imbalances, then you have to address that with them individually. If they are each being equitable with their coworkers on their own terms, then you have a failure in communicating your expectations.

    However, since you have let this go on so long, you are in real trouble here. If you rule on the side of individual speed, then the "collaborator" is going to be hurt emotionally. If you rule on the side of collaboration, then the "arrogant" person is going to see their role as doing nothing but carrying "the dead weight."

    More than likely the "arrogant" one wants only to be recognized for their individual contributions. Take them aside and tell them you notice how they can handle anything you throw at them, and that you need their help in getting the "collaborator" to work more independently, but that is going to require some help in order to accomplish. Then tell the "collaborator" that they need to ask for help only when it is actually required, and that the "arrogant" person will be more willing to offer help.

    Of course, it depends entirely on the dynamic you are trying to create, but it seems like you have failed to establish any expectations.

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      Clearing the fairly unproductive comments here. Wesley, there's nothing wrong with referencing another answer when doing so helps to make your point without making your answer dependent on another. But when doing so, you'll usually want to include a link to the answer you're referencing, and explain why you disagree with the strategy presented there. Not only does this reduce confusion from readers who may not have seen the answer you're referencing, it's more polite: you're clearly disagreeing with the answer then, not calling out a person. – Shog9 Apr 10 '14 at 19:26
    • Well, there doesn't seem to be a method to link to an answer when responding. I suppose you have to copy the link out of the "share" address? Not very intuitive, but OK, I'll go with it. And I completely disagree with your assertion that stating you disagree with someone is "calling them out." The subtlety between stating you disagree with a person versus disagreeing with their statement, frankly, escapes me. – Wesley Long Apr 10 '14 at 19:51
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      @WesleyLong I don't think there's any subtlety in "and explain why you disagree with the strategy presented there. " That would provide the context to make it worthwhile to point out the disagreement. – Nicole Apr 11 '14 at 1:10

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