how to solve a conflict on your team

Managers sometimes aren’t sure what their role, if any, should be in solving conflicts other people are having, especially if the conflict feels more personal than work-related. But if it’s impacting your team — by creating distractions, lowering productivity, or making it hard for people to get things done — you need to step in. Here’s how to do it.

Get a better understanding of what the conflict is about. Some conflicts are just personality conflicts or personal dislike, but some are rooted in legitimate issues. For example, it’s possible that Jane and Bob simply don’t like each other, but it’s also possible that Jane is frustrated because Bob isn’t pulling his weight or keeps missing deadlines that impact her work, or that Bob sees that Jane’s poor customer service is undermining the whole team. To complicate matters further, Bob might be right about Jane’s poor customer service, but maybe he’s making the problem worse by criticizing her work to clients or just treating her rudely – which would put him in the wrong as well.

What you don’t want to do is to assume that it’s just a personality conflict that both people are equally responsible for (a common mistake managers make). Take the time to ask each person about what’s going on and listen with an open mind so that you really understand the source of the frustration.

Do encourage the employees to work it out themselves if possible – but know that this won’t always be appropriate. If it’s truly just a personality conflict, it’s reasonable to expect professionals to resolve that on their own (although they may need a nudge from you telling them that they need to knock it off). But not all conflicts will be solvable without your intervention. If the root of the issue is a slacking team member who’s making more work for everyone else, that will require you stepping in and dealing with that team member – that’s not something that other people will have the authority to do on their own. Other times, people just may not have the skills to resolve interpersonal conflict on their own. So …

Be willing to step in to resolve the issue yourself. If you do this, talk to each individually and make a judgment call about whether it would be helpful to meet with both people at the same time. Managers sometimes default to assuming that meeting with both people at once is the fastest way to resolve a problem, but that’s not always effective and sometimes can even make things worse. For instance, if one of the employees is shy and unassertive, or particularly intimidated by the other person, she may not be comfortable speaking freely in a group meeting. And if the other person is particularly vocal and assertive, it can leave the less outspoken person feeling at a disadvantage. Or, in the example above about a slacking team member, a group meeting wouldn’t make sense; you’d need to address it with the person who’s causing the issue.

Don’t tolerate unkind, uncivil, or unprofessional behavior. No matter what, make it clear that team members need to treat each other with respect. They don’t have to love working with each other, and they can legitimately dislike actions someone else takes, but they do need to treat each other pleasantly and professionally. That’s just a basic work obligation and you should quickly call it out if someone isn’t meeting that bar.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s Fast Track blog.

{ 12 comments… read them below }

  1. BuildMeUp*

    Whatever you do, don’t play telephone with employee issues like my old manager did!

    Manager told me that my coworker wanted me to stop joining in on conversations with her customers during her transactions (which we were trained to do as a “distraction” to give a “good customer experience,” especially if the transaction was taking a while). Turns out she was actually mad that I would jump in and answer her customers’ policy-related questions (which I was still sometimes doing, because in my mind it was different than just joining a conversation), because it made her feel like I thought she didn’t know what she was doing. To be fair, I think I did start verging into know-it-all territory — I had been there the longest and knew a lot that newer people didn’t, but I often wasn’t giving her a chance to answer the question first.

    She had told my manager, who told me a badly summarized version, and the problem continued until she got mad at me one day, our manager pulled us both into a side office to talk it out. Once coworker talked directly to me, I figured out what the actual problem was. The issue dragged on for weeks because of how it was handled.

  2. Anon Accountant*

    We have one of those in our company. He insults other’s intelligence and interrupts them in conversation to yell at them. If he’d let them finish he’d get the whole picture and understand he doesn’t have all the pieces of the puzzle. He doesn’t take well to being shown when he’s incorrect on anything.

    Those that get along best with him quietly nod when he is berating them. Management is aware but does nothing because the behaviors continue. Such behaviors always should be addressed.

  3. AnonEMoose*

    I’m curious about something. How would the advice differ (or would it), in a volunteer organization? Especially one in which, whatever the official lines of reporting are, there are some deeply entrenched volunteers who have been around a long time, who can be challenging to work with for various reasons.

    And partly due to the entrenched volunteers, etc., there can be some weirdness around reporting relationships (even though, on paper, such relationships exist, a not-insignificant people don’t want to think about it like that, and don’t respond well to being reminded that there is an actual reporting structure).

    1. fposte*

      If it’s a volunteer organization where there’s a hierarchy on paper and people stay long enough to make conflict worth resolving, I think these are good suggestions to start with. “I know we’re about the mission here rather than the pay, but I think we’re having an issue that’s impeding our efforts here. Let’s treat the work respectfully and see if we can resolve it.”

      People who have tantrums when asked to be nice to other people aren’t doing much for the mission.

  4. Anonymous Educator*

    Do encourage the employees to work it out themselves if possible – but know that this won’t always be appropriate.

    This second half is so key in the places I’ve worked. Some conflicts I’ve witnessed really come down to a difference in opinion or values or perspectives. But I’ve also seen a lot of “conflict” that is just straight-out abuse of one party on another. If you’re a good manager, you’ll recognize that and discipline / fire the abuser instead of making it out to always be a “We’re all adults—why can’t you two get along?” situation.

    If there are two co-workers with one supervisor and one co-worker is abusing the other or not pulling her weight or misbehaving in some other way (in other words, it’s not just a matter of clashing personalities but one person is clearly in the wrong), the supervisor needs to not pull an “I’m washing my hands of this” and actually step in, because the supervisor has the authority to do so. The co-worker doesn’t have the authority to discipline her co-worker.

    1. HM in Atlanta*

      Yes! Nothing is worse than being the one trying to get along/work with someone else, and the other person makes no effort, and you’re both painted as a problem.

      1. Seal*

        Agreed. I’m right in the middle of a project where I’m supposed to be working with a fellow department head who has instead chosen to withhold information and exclude me from meetings because I dared to raise legitimate issues about the direction and scope of our project. When I brought this to the attention of our boss, he got mad at ME because he had to get involved and manage his staff. And then he came up with a ridiculous work-around rather than addressing bad behavior of this woman, who has a long and storied history of pulling stuff like this. God forbid a boss who makes at least twice my salary actually manage.

      2. NicoleK*

        It’s just as bad when other have issues with the coworker but no one says anything. So you’re looking like the crazy problem child

      3. Dr. Johnny Fever*

        Ugh. Been here. It sucks. I had a competitive coworker who froze me out even though my boss wanted us to partner together. There’s only so much I can do when one person is actively avoiding me and sending info and invites that I know nothing about. Somehow, the issue wasn’t with his MO but with my inability to “make” him a team player. I’m not on that team anymore – my choice. I didn’t like being painted as the obstacle I was trying to push past even though others could see what was going on.

  5. Lanya (aka Camp Director Kim)*

    This reminds me of the time at OldJob when the CEO forced two people who were having repeated personality conflicts to go out to lunch together and “be friends”. CEO then purposely put them on projects together after that to try to make them be “more friendly”. They were civil with each other, but a friendship was not something either one wanted to foster. Not surprisingly, it didn’t work very well.

  6. LeRainDrop*

    The worst is when the manager is causing the conflict — all the team members get along (after realizing that the manager was orchestrating false conflict between them), but the manager is a bully and gets away with all sorts of emotional abuse because she is boss’s golden child. I would be interested in hearing from Alison about how to deal with bullying in the workplace that is inflicted by the manager (said boss still having many others in the organization that are higher up than her). If it matters this is the context of biglaw, where the manager is an income partner.

  7. Simon*

    Some useful pointers, but would really have loved more.
    I have worked with many different personalities over the years and for the most part I am accommodating- as I’m sure they are of my personality!
    I am however becoming rather tired of working with a toxic, manipulating colleague. She takes turns in ignoring any one of us in the team, makes it incredibly difficult to liaise about team work, and yet says hurtful things whilst watching to see the reaction. I have called said colleague out at the time of saying such things and they then try to brush this off. I have tried, and have spent hours listening to ranting and raving about the frustrations this person feels (feels aggrieved about many, many things), yet this seems to have made it worse, not better.
    The situation is becoming untenable, embarrassing (the image and professionalism of our team is being eroded by this behavior), and it’s wasting far too many work hours when I could be working.
    When I talk to them privately it calms down, yet then escalates to another conversation some weeks later. I have discussed their anger when they are calm, explaining that beyond a certain point it distresses me, only to be told I should leave. It’s becoming tiresome and quite frankly boring.
    I am losing my patience because said person has made racially based comments, has thrown my patience in my face and I hate the fact they are trying to manipulate me and, I am getting very tired at listening to all of the anger.
    Deep down this person is hurting, and they need help, however this behavior is not acceptable. The manipulation and fishing for a reaction actions are all strikingly immature for a person near retirement age, and I fear that at this stage in their life they aren’t going to drastically grow up!

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