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7 Powerful Actions When You're the Manager in the Middle

Mike Horne
June 17, 2022
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One of my colleagues, outstanding in every way, started on the wrong foot with a new colleague. Regardless of what I did (or didn’t do) or the passage of time, the relationship between my teammates deteriorated. I was confident that two bright, capable individuals would figure it out — that they would make things work. After all, both team members were sought by senior leaders for their superb employee relations skills, seeming to slice through most conflicts like a hot knife through butter. As for me, I felt stuck and ineffective between the feuding colleagues.

The situation between the colleagues I’m describing is mirrored throughout organizations every day. Some managers give up when they tire of the tension, and that’s rarely a practical approach. When others feel the pair’s tension, collaboration and engagement suffer. Even the best managers can seldom ignite teamwork in a small group when colleagues clash. Likewise, it’s challenging to spark innovation with feuding teammates.

The lessons I learned as a community mediator for the DC Superior Court, as an inclusion and diversity consultant to the Fortune 100, and manager provide an actionable approach to dealing with a dispute between colleagues when you feel stuck in the middle.

1. Awareness and attentiveness are under-rated and powerful allied leadership forces. Effective managers scan the environment, involving team members in a similar pursuit. They discuss what’s working and what’s is being shortchanged on the team. A well-aware manager won’t be surprised when situations seem to arise out of nowhere. Successful leaders can be aware without asking questions by inviting conversation and discussion. Awareness is a lever on a path towards creating change. Awareness and attentiveness arise from reflection, mindfulness, and care.

2. Assess the situation. Too often, in the day-to-day chase, we come to rapid judgments. In many business situations, quick and effective decision-making is both valued and rewarded. But, in cases of feuding colleagues, immediate assessment should be avoided. You are dealing with careers in need of mend. A long-term orientation to problem-solving may yield the most significant benefit to the individual, group, and organization you lead. Assessment needs to be neither Sherlock Holmes nor Colombo in style but to fit the purpose that develops frameworks for understanding and action.

3. Understand your role and actions contributing to the conflict situation. Some say that what we don’t like in others is a projection of what we don’t like in ourselves. In this way, outstanding managers are acutely aware of who they are and how their roles influence work environments. Self-assessment is insufficient. Get feedback from your manager or trusted colleagues about how you’re coming across.

4. Expand beyond a one-size-fits-all skillset. If everyone deserves a great leader, that is a leader who demonstrates a range of conflict-handling approaches and skills. Sometimes, it’s just as beneficial to avoid a situation as it is to engage others collaboratively in solving a problem. It’s a reminder that every conflict needs to be sized for appropriate intervention and action. Some make mountains of molehills, often because of an inability to be flexible with their approaches to resolving conflict. Those in conflict bring unique talents, as they do personal lives integrated into work, whether we like it or not.

5. Consider your intent, energy, and desire. Every conflict situation involves a dispute between the wants and needs of one person (or persons) and another person’s wants and needs. When those needs conflict, we often tug at each other, fueled by a belief in scarcity rather than abundance. When a manager has a greater vision of power that can be distributed to ignite and influence teamwork, they can use that vision to include and involve others in mission-critical activities.

6. Say something, do something. As evident as this seems, undeveloped skills and emotions often leave us bereft of action. Even imperfect efforts, delivered with care and grace, are mostly well-received. Inattention breeds misunderstanding, fuels exaggeration and fantasy, and creates unnecessary dissonance. When you’re saying and doing, be transparent with everyone involved. Let others know why and what.

7. Every new order begins with a pause — a heartfelt stop. The pause creates the possibility for dialogue. When we engage in dialogue, we hear others deeply, enabling satisfaction of the universal desire to be understood.

Every conflict brings a new challenge, but it doesn’t mean that every situation needs re-invention or re-discovery of approaches to getting unstuck from the middle. The seven prescriptions have no power without practice. The seven-step framework isn’t offered as a target for training on a work conflict but as preparation for leading well.

I can’t say that I mind conflict at work. Conflict is natural and used as a performance advantage in the best teams. My earliest experiences in Cesar Chavez’s and Delores Huerta’s UFW lettuce boycotts taught me the power of creating conflict for progress and change. While our sights may be less ambitious than social change at work, our actions to build better relationships and leaders help create organizations where people do their best work.

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