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How Much Can the Boss Do About Workplace Conflict?

Executives ask me frequently: Why do they have to get involved in their subordinates’ conflicts? Why don’t they just work these things out themselves like adults instead of acting like they’re in high school? After all, they’re not paid to fuss, they’re paid to function.

And I explain that regardless of their age or experience, sometimes team members need a little help. And why does their headache have to become your headache? Because by working with them to resolve their issue you can get a better result for everyone than they could get for themselves. It’s up to you to create some progress: When attention and energy on the work at hand, you have the potential for more innovation and more productivity.

Structural Causes of Conflict

Before you intervene between or among the parties, check for structural problems that could be feeding interpersonal tensions. Look for a trigger or a set of underlying conditions, separate from the specific individuals involved, their personalities and behaviors. For example, just because several people are furious and fighting with Jane, don’t assume that she’s actually the source of the conflict.

Jane might be behaving in annoying ways because the standard system reports don’t happen to generate the information she’s supposed to be giving to customers, and she has to bother three other departments to get their data. All three of those managers may complain to you that she’s distracting and bugging their people and just won’t quit. But this isn’t really a problem with Jane.

Tribal-style Conflict

Sales vs. operations and customer service vs. the warehouse are typical tribal-style conflicts: Their departments’ needs and goals often appear to be directly at cross-purposes, and their managers may be locked in conflict because they’re representing their constituencies instead of the larger company purpose.

Cross-training employees so that each department understands the true difficulties and constraints of the others’ work, followed by a discussion about “caring about what the other cares about and how it contributes to overall goals” will often alleviate much of the presumed need for conflict between departments. (See How to Use Shared Values and Empathy to Defuse Conflict for more on using organizational values to alleviate conflict.)

Reward structures could be at issue too. If teammates draw on a limited pool of resources and are evaluated and compensated on meeting conflicting goals, they may end up fighting each other to be successful in their jobs. If you want collaboration instead of confrontation, you’ll need to reexamine how people are evaluated and paid.

Too Many Cooks Stirring Up the Broth

Or you may find that you have too many cooks all trying to stir a single, small, congested pot. If your culture requires that everyone be invited to meetings or CC’d on every email, it’s very likely that from time to time people will weigh in on issues where they have only peripheral engagement or responsibility, but where they can cause lots of trouble.

Who are the necessary parties? Who are the hangers-on? Is anybody throwing extra fuel on the fire? Some managers seem to make a practice of playing favorites or bringing up unrelated issues or problems from the past. Employees who are desperate for attention, particularly from the most senior person in the room, will often (consciously or unconsciously) incite some kind of disagreement or turmoil so they can go and commiserate with the power source later.

If the group harbors an instigator, coach that person to ease off on the comments — or change the meeting or email structure to eliminate the chance for them to stir up dissension. Limit meetings and information flows to those who have a genuine interest or value.

Once you’ve exposed and eliminated these structural problems, what’s left tends to be the real interpersonal conflict. I’ll write more about how much you can and cannot do as a manager in next week’s post.

Onward and upward,


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2 thoughts on “How Much Can the Boss Do About Workplace Conflict?

  1. “Once you’ve exposed and eliminated these structural problems, what’s left tends to be the real interpersonal conflict. I’ll write more about how much you can and cannot do as a manager in next week’s post.”

    Insightful and practical series. The next is the one I’m waiting for.

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