Business owners, entrepreneurs, managers—anyone in charge of a team—will be required to mediate at some point in his or her career. Even if this is a rare occurrence and you have great team rapport, there will come a time when two or more colleagues can’t see eye to eye.
Mediation is not a responsibility one can take lightly. Unresolved conflicts don’t only affect the involved parties—they affect the entire team. Without proper mediation, these conflicts can lead to a hostile work environment that can dramatically impact productivity.
When you have an invaluable group of excellent employees, you have to find a way to make them all happy. Here are the three most important steps to take when co-workers can’t co-work:
1. Collect reliable information.
Depending on how you learned about the disagreement, one of the first steps for any mediation will be to collect information to ensure you understand the perspective of everyone involved. This might mean sitting down together in a group or touching base with each employee separately.
It’s important to be sensitive while collecting information about a conflict. If an employee aired his or her grievances to you in confidence, it obviously isn’t appropriate to relay those grievances to another employee. Use your best judgment when deciding how you can best understand the issue at hand.
Furthermore, it’s important to ensure that your information is reliable. Take into consideration biases when listening to each side of the disagreement and be careful to separate fact from opinion.
2. Identify potential solutions.
One mistake often made in mediation is identifying general solutions rather than specific ones. Ask each involved party to identify clearly what would leave them more satisfied. While these solutions often won’t align immediately, it will offer a starting point for finding a viable solution that pleases everyone.
Be sure to avoid “Band-Aid” solutions. If two employees are having trouble working together on a project, a “Band-Aid” solution would be to separate them. While this fixes a symptom of the problem, it doesn’t solve the problem itself, which is that these two employees struggle to interact with each other. Find out why and fix it. You can’t spend valuable time trying to keep two of your employees separated.
Also consider how the work environment or distribution of responsibility might be contributing to the conflict. For example, maybe these employees are under a narrow deadline that is causing tension. By lengthening that deadline, or identifying smaller milestones for each employee within the project, you might remove some of that tension. As a supervisor, you might be able to directly contribute to the solution by restructuring the work environment.
3. Always revisit.
While you should trust your employees to take the actions they have committed to during mediation, you should never assume this has happened. A conflict always needs to be revisited. Not only will returning to the issue allow you to learn if the solution has been effective, but it will also allow for a discussion of how to avoid future disagreements.
If someone is still struggling, they might be more willing to admit their concerns to you in private than at a group check-in.
After agreeing to a solution with the involved parties, schedule a time for a progress report. Touch base individually with each person in the following days or weeks, between the mediation and the progress report meeting. If someone is still struggling, they might be more willing to admit their concerns to you in private than at a group check-in.
If your solution doesn’t appear to be working, scrap it and try something else. Once you are monitoring the disagreement, it may become easier for you to identify a single factor—or a single individual—who is contributing to the issue most heavily. If this is the case, it’s your responsibility to address this accordingly.
Mediation should be rare.
While it’s not healthy to let bad feelings simmer among your team, sometimes the best course of action is to do nothing. One of the hallmarks of leadership is knowing when to intervene and when to step back.
It should be a rare event that you are required to mediate. Though unavoidable, it shouldn’t be commonplace. Your employees should be mature and professional enough to compromise and settle disputes on their own most of the time. Your involvement should only be required after the involved parties have exhausted their attempts at resolution.
But when it does come time to step into your mediation shoes, follow these three steps to ensure you reach a solution quickly.
Related: How Do You Handle Conflict?