Disagreements between employees happen, perhaps more frequently than you bargained for when you agreed to be a manager. A March 2011 survey by Accountemps found that managers spend about 18 percent of their time -- almost one full day per week -- mediating employee disputes. You don't want to start wearing a referee whistle to work, but you do have to be ready to intervene to prevent work disruptions.
Determine if the dispute requires your intervention. If it's just a minor dustup, like two cats hissing at each other, let it pass. If, however, it threatens the productivity of your unit, call the warring parties into your office.
Ask the employees involved to describe the content of the current disagreement. Interject questions to get at the underlying cause, such as “Why did it bother you so much when Sally turned up the heat?” or “Why didn't you tell Brian sooner that you get really uncomfortable when he turns down the thermostat?”
Give each person the chance to tell her side of the story, and get the parties to communicate constructively with each other. Stop and correct an employee when he uses inappropriate language or makes unrealistic demands, but don't play "Judge Judy"; remain as neutral as possible.
Ask the employees involved in the dispute how they think they can resolve the problem. Ensure that each employee has an equal opportunity to speak. Ask clarifying questions to keep the dialogue on track.
When they have reached a solution, restate the agreement in your own words to make sure that both parties concur and commit to it.
Explain clearly to the employees that you expect them to address any future disagreements in a civil, professional manner. Let them know you are available to assist in negotiations, but that you expect them to find their own solutions.
- If the situation relates to overlapping responsibilities, you can avoid future turf wars by clarifying each employee's roles and responsibilities.
- Interpersonal relationships work more smoothly when employees know each other better. Consider sponsoring periodic social events, such as a pizza lunch, a monthly cake party to celebrate employee birthdays, or a Friday afternoon snack hour.
- When a dispute arises, it's easy to fall into the trap of assuming that your stellar employee is right and the difficult employee is the one who started the problem. Maintain your objectivity and give each side a fair hearing.
A retired federal senior executive currently working as a management consultant and communications expert, Mary Bauer has written and edited for senior U.S. government audiences, including the White House, since 1984. She holds a Master of Arts in French from George Mason University and a Bachelor of Arts in English, French and international relations from Aquinas College.