4 Secrets to Managing Conflict for Supervisors Stuck in the Middle

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Occasionally, I’m swept up in the moment and forget the adage “there are two sides to every story.”  (In the workplace, there are multiple sides!)  After all, managing people can be a hectic job where time is at a premium and emotions sometimes get the best of us.

My many years in HR have taught me that the truth is somewhere in between the sides.  That’s also where you’ll find the solution.

When supervising a team, you will be faced with situations in which someone comes to you with a beef.  It may be someone from another department complaining about one of your team members.  Or it may be a team member who has a dispute with another member of your team.  It can even be someone who has an issue with you.

Supervisors play a pivotal role in conflict management for organizations.  Too much unhealthy conflict left unchecked damages productivity.

But simply acting as a judge by taking one side or another will result in lingering hard feelings and a breakdown of relationships.

Managing conflict well can leave relationships stronger than before the issue. Knowing how to maneuver tricky interpersonal situations empathetically, fairly, and rationally ensures you maintain the respect of everyone involved and position you for career advancement.

That’s Not What Happened!

In the early days of my HR consulting business, an office manager for one of my clients told me that two employees came to her and said they called me and I was not returning the calls.

She believed what she had been told and confronted me about why I was not responsive.  I was flabbergasted!  I knew this was false; in fact, I prided myself on being extremely available.

Why didn’t she consider that there might be more to it? I took a deep breath and explained my side of the story.

Person A wasn’t available when I returned her call so I sent an email letting her know I was trying to reach her. It turns out that although they all have email they did all their work in another system that had its own messaging module; so, most people didn’t read their email.  Since the office manager answered hers and all other employees had it, I mistakenly assumed that was a legitimate method of contacting someone at the company.

I didn’t receive a voicemail at all from Person B.  I found out she did call me, but she didn’t leave a message.  All the calls from the company come in to my phone from the same number, so I had no way of knowing who the missed call was from, so was unable to return the call.

I called each person to talked through what happened.  We laughed at how things can appear one way but really be another and at the incorrect assumptions, we had each made.  We clarified how we would get in touch with each other going forward.

That situation could have gone in many different, unproductive directions quickly.  The company could have simply decided I was unresponsive and severed our relationship.  The two individuals could have told others not to bother trying to call me because I wouldn’t call them back.

Although everything worked out, the office manager’s approach caused me to feel like I was walking on egg shells.  She was so quick to assume I was in the wrong, I was concerned that another misunderstanding could end the professional relationship prematurely.

How supervisors handle complaints will make or break how others feel about them.  If you want to be someone others love to work with, you must have a calm, unbiased, open approach in these circumstances.

Open Communication is the Solution

Here are the four steps that I have found can make someone highly effective when mediating conflict.

1. Slow the Roll

Other people’s feelings can be contagious.  While you listen, slow your breathing.  Rather than jumping on their bandwagon, keep in mind that you are only hearing one side of the story.

2. Listen for the Details

If the person is angry or frustrated, they are probably not thinking clearly.  Listen carefully to what they say as well as what they don’t say.  It will help you when you ask them probing questions in the next step.

3. Ask Questions

A question that has been effective for me is to ask, “Why would he/she do that?”  It stops the emotional snowball and switches on the rational side of the brain.  It also reminds them that they may not have all the information.

Also, ask probing questions like you’re a detective, trying to uncover clues to what went wrong.

4. Coach that Direct is Best

When possible, coach the individual to talk to the other person directly.  Most of the time, that takes care of the situation.

Some employees push back on this approach.  After all, very few people will easily take on conflict.  Their fear is blanketed in the claim that you are the supervisor, so it’s your job to talk to the person and make them stop.

Encourage them to think through how sending their supervisor in to speak with the person is damaging to their relationship.  Ask them how they would feel if a co-worker told their boss on them and their boss pulled them in for a discussion. Defensive? Yep.  Angry at the person who told on them? You bet. There won’t be a happy ending to this story.

If the individual with the complaint has the best interest of the other person and the organization at heart, they will step up and have the difficult conversation.  After all, if they don’t, the next conversation after the supervisor intervenes will be even more difficult.

Practice Makes Habit

The next time you’re confronted with someone complaining about someone else, remember these four steps.  The more you do it, the easier it will become until finally, it is second nature.

You’ll de-escalate the conflict while still ensuring issues are dealt with and relationships strengthened.  These are the skills of top-level supervisors that people love to work with!

We Want to Hear from You!

Have you ever jumped to conclusions when hearing a complaint?  Do you have effective methods of staying neutral in the heat of the emotion?

You can leave your answer in a comment below.

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People Matters provides support to business owners and leaders in all areas of human resources management including the topic in this article: supervising people.

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1 Comment

  1. Laura on July 13, 2017 at 10:58 am

    Great article Jodi! As our business models are similar, you have laid out some great points here…and clear, effective communication is an absolute necessity in all relationships. Thank you!

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