Supervisor - Mediating Conflict
With summer vacations upon us, staffing gets stretched thin covering all the bases. The rising temperature outside mirrors the rising tempers inside the office. As a supervisor you may find yourself more in the fray of conflicted co-workers. Your first responsibility when this happens is to monitor the quality and quantity of work. Part of this process is to prevent more people being drawn into the conflict. You are not responsible for seeing that people like each other or feel good about the situation.
Too often inexperienced supervisors feel they have to play Solomon and get bogged down in disputes about who said what or did what first. You are not the staff therapist or even a mediator. Aim for structural solutions before personal ones. Refer back to the job descriptions and work standards. Revise job descriptions if necessary to clarify and perhaps differentiate tasks to remove some of the friction.
When one employee complains to you about another, budget your time for listening to complaints and enforce the time limits. First ask how they have tried to work it out already. If the complaining employee has not spoken to the offending person, the first step is to let the employee know that you will be available to help them further after they have spoken to the offending person. If they are too afraid to speak to the offending person, offer to go along with them.
As the supervisor, you set the precedent for how conflict is handled within your team. How you handle conflict also plays a big part in how you encourage a negative or positive work environment. When an employee comes into your office and says something like "I really like (co-worker) but (complaint)" or "I can't work with (co-worker) anymore because (complaint)" you have a few choices of what to do next.
Choices - Do You ...:
- Just listen to their complaint and do nothing about the situation. However, we send the message that we are OK being the reservoir of complaints or gossip and we are powerless to change the negative environment of the team.
- Take the employee's offense and charge out to right the terrible wrong - the knight in shining armor. However, this option carries the assumption that the complainer's side is all there is and the other person really is a villain. You may find out, after you accused the offender, that there really are two sides to every story. Now you have a situation where both parties are unhappy with how you handled the situation. The first person feels you were ineffective and the second person feels unjustly accused.
- Help the employee through the conflict. This sends a very different message when an employee steps into your office to complain about a co-worker. It will discourage people who have a bad habit of bad mouthing others and it will encourage your employees to build their interpersonal skills in the area of conflict.
Steps to walk an employee through conflict:
- Listen for emotions and then reflect what they have told you and validate their emotions. People need to know you hear their emotions in order to feel they have been heard.
- "What I hear you saying is ..... did I get that right?"
- "Her sharp words sound like they cut you. Of course that would make you feel belittled when you felt the sting of her words."
- Reflecting and validating another person's experience is NOT agreeing that their perspective is the only perspective.