Leader as Mediator

What do you do when two people in your team are in conflict with each other? 

When I was first new to managing people this was one of the most challenging things I had to deal with and it took me quite a while to work out how to handle conflicts and to reach a satisfactory outcome.  What I found was that the two people involved would look to me as their leader to sort out the problem, each of them would independently complain about the other to me and expect me to talk to the other person about it.   Over the years I tried different ways to resolve these until eventually I fine tuned an approach that worked not only to settle these conflicts but to turn them into a really positive experience.  

So here are some of the things I tried in the past to resolve conflicts before I finally developed an effective approach.Initially I would avoid the issue.  I would ignore it in the hopes that the problem would go away.  In fact I have been tempted to wait until one of the parties left the organisation but quickly decided against this as a viable option.  One person leaving could, on the face of it, seem to solve the problem but also has the potential to leave the company in a vulnerable position.  First of all there are the costs associated finding a replacement, recruitment costs as well as lost productivity caused by the vacancy.   Followed by the risk of a constructive dismissal claim and all that entails.  But worse than that the possibility that the wrong person would leave and I’d be left with the person who is the cause of the problem and the same problem manifests itself again but with another team member. Occasionally ignoring the situation worked but invariably it didn’t and the problem would just escalate, so if I was to avoid a risk to the company something had to be done. 

Then I tried listening to both sides of the argument, making sure that both parties got an equal hearing and then try to either make a ruling, or to make suggestions about how the two of them could work together more productively.  Sometimes this worked too, but often times it still didn’t solve the problem.  At least one if not both parties were unhappy with either the ruling or something about the solutions offered and the conflict carried on.  

After that I tried putting both parties in a room and told them to sort out whatever problems they had as I was not prepared to put up with the disruption that they were causing to the rest of the team.  And to my surprise this did work really well – but not always! 

Eventually I attempted a three way conversation, however my first attempt was a disaster.  Right in front of my eyes one of the team members tried to bully the other one into submission.  I had to call a halt to that one very quickly.  But it was the start of my learning how to handle a conflict 02/03and agreement about how the three of you are going to work together during the course of this conversation.  It needs to cover aspects like confidentiality, being open, being respectful, understanding that difference of opinion is ok, allowing each to speak without being interrupted, being factual and objective not subjective.  I find that explaining the Life Position’s model (I’m OK You’re OK) from Transactional Analysis can be helpful to the parties involved.  Also discuss sticking to aspects that are within their control or influence, who is accountable and who is responsible for what in the conversation.  This is where you need to be clear about your role in the conversation and their responsibilities.   Finally agree who can call for a break including what’s appropriate and how they should do this.   I put the following list on a flipchart and ask each person what the words mean for them;

  • Confidentiality
  • Openness•  Respect
  • Accountability
  • Responsibility
  • Focus
  • Breaks/Time

Give each person time to talk about what each of the words mean for them and what they would like from the conversation and what they are prepared to offer.  The contracting conversation will set the tone for the rest of the conversation.  

Maintain your own presence throughout the conversation.  Conflict can be highly emotive for the parties involved and if you are going to help them to rebuild their relationship you need to stay calm and avoid getting drawn into the emotion.   In doing so you help them to sit with the emotion and work through it.  Sometimes when the emotions run high it might be appropriate to take a short break of about 10 minutes, but reconvene the meeting and encourage the conversation to continue.   Maintaining your presence also involves maintaining your impartiality so no making suggestions or offering of your own opinions.  I found that an understanding of Drama Triangle, another model from Transactional Analysis enabled me to maintain my presence.  The drama triangle offers an easy to understand language about what is happening in a conflict situation and once I understood this it made it easier to handle myself and notice others in conflict situations.

have to retrain their brains to behave in a new way, which means first unlearning the old ways of behaving.  Position it with them to expect that this is likely to happen, it’s just human nature.  Encourage them to work out a strategy to help each other when they fall into their old patterns of behaviour.

Allow plenty of time for the process.  If you are going to help the parties to come up with a long term solution you will need to invest some time in this.  Allow up to three hours for a first meeting.  If the conflict has been picked up early then this will be more than enough time to come to a resolution.  Longer term conflict is multi facetted and rarely simple to resolve so it can take more than one meeting before a long term strategy is agreed.

Always have a review meeting.  Remember Kolb’s learning cycle – Plan, Do, Review, Reflect. Even if the conflict appears to be resolved in one meeting it is important to have a follow up meeting to check on progress.  In the follow up meeting invite the two parties to review what was agreed, how it is working in practice and whether there is anything else they could do differently to meet the original goal.     

One of the best outcomes I found of handling conflict in this way is that the team learns how to handle conflict positively.  Relationships become much stronger, team through a three way conversation.  Eventually getting to a point where a conflict became the starting point for a really positive outcome for the individuals, the team, the business and the customer.

Finally I learned how to facilitate a conversation between the two parties.  A positive conversation where the two parties in conflict work out how to resolve their differences and work positively together.  An added bonus is that this always results in a higher performing team. 

So here are my tips for facilitating a three way conversation to resolve a conflict permanently and (relatively) quickly between members of your team (or others).

Address the issue sooner rather than later.  Often conflicts start out as what seems like something very trivial but before you know it the conflict has grown out of all proportion and is having an impact on the morale and productivity of the whole team, not just the two people at loggerheads. It’s easier to solve a small conflict early than it is to resolve a big problem that has escalated and out of control.  Make a mental (or physical) note of small conflicts and notice when a pattern starts to emerge – if it’s happened more than once then it’s a pattern!  Once you notice a pattern then address it immediately.

You are the mediator not the problem solver.  When you are facilitating this conversation you are not there to offer the answers.  You are there to help them to find their own answers.  Your job is to encourage the two of them to build their relationship.  You facilitate a conversation that ensures that they talk to, listen to and hear each other and then come to an agreement.   They are responsible for coming up with their own solutions.

Set a clear goal for the conversation.  Be explicit about the impact this conflict is having on the team, the business, its customers, its stakeholders etc.  Make it clear that this is not an acceptable state of affairs. Then set a goal for the conversation.  When setting the goal set a higher aspiration than just a resolution to the problem between the two of them.  For example the goal might be ‘how can the two of you work together to achieve a better service for the customer, the team or the business’.    Make it clear that you are looking for them to come up with a long term strategy and that you want them to focus on a future desired state.

Agree a contract for the conversation.  I cannot overemphasise how important this is to the success of the conversation.  Agreeing the contract is an exploration Ensure that each person has heard and understood each other.

Once you have agreed the contract then the two parties need to talk about the conflict.  They need to get this off their chest and they need to know that the other person has heard and understood their side of the story.  The only way a person can really know if they have been understood is if the other person repeats back the story.  So each person needs to tell their story and in order for them to know that they have been understood the other party needs to repeat it back to them.   So here is the starting process that I eventually settled on.  Allocate a specific amount of time to each party to talk about their version of events (say 10 minutes)

 Remind them that in the contract they agreed to be factual and objective.  The second party listens without interrupting.  You can ask questions but only for clarification purposes.  Once the first person has finished then the second person summarises what they have heard (without responding to it) until (and this is really important that it is adhered to) the first person confirms that they have summarised correctly.  If the second person has not got it right then the first person clarifies and the process is repeated.  Then exchange places and repeat the whole process for the second party to talk about their story.  The purpose here is for both parties to be listened to and heard by each other.  This is regularly the start of the healing in the relationship.   The remainder of the conversation should be future and goal based.  It is important that each party has sufficient time to talk about their history but once this has happened then a line should be drawn underneath it and the rest of the conversation should be focussed on the future desired state and how they can achieve it.   Throughout the conversation ensure that both parties are getting roughly equal air time.

Brainstorm lots of ideas.  Encourage them to brainstorm lots of potential solutions before deciding which ones are workable for them. I will ask both parties to come up with at least 10 or more ideas.  Generally people stop brainstorming after only a couple of ideas and yet these are seldom the best solutions.  Once a range of ideas have been suggested then invite them to analyse the ideas before coming to an agreement about what they will actually agree to.  

Plan for old patterns of behaviour to resurface. People do not change just because they have agreed to or because they want to (just look at how many people can’t give up smoking or lose weight to see how true this is). They may work is improved, productivity improves and they start working out how to resolve other problems in the workplace and suddenly you have a much more effective team, without you having to be so involved!  Rather than trying to keep out of conflict situations in the workplace perhaps we should look for them, embrace them and welcome them.   They provide a great opportunity to grow and develop your team.

First published by Kogan Page in January 2015 and an abbreviated version in Inspire, the Hertfordshire Chamber of Commerce Magazine in March 2015

This entry was posted on June 16, 2016

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