Managers have a special role in the office—the “big” bosses rely on them to make sure everyone is working at their highest capacity. By their nature, managers are problem-solvers—not only do they know and understand the work being done, they also know how to help employees resolve knotty technical problems, or they know where to find resources that will help in resolution. But sometimes, management’s expertise in the technical area is not matched by their people skills, particularly when strong emotions are involved.
If employee-employee conflict is severe enough, the pressure can cause normally calm employees to erupt in emotional outbursts, severely disrupting the workday. Even one high emotional outburst can have a ripple effect, affecting office morale for weeks. Co-workers can begin to take sides, leading disputing employees to feel supported as they engage in more hostile behavior to each other. Management’s attempts to resolve the dispute can cause the employees in conflict to feel that management is taking sides, and the deck is stacked against them. In the most severe situations, an employee who is in a dispute against another employee, and who believes that she has no way to resolve the dispute, may abruptly resign her position. Alternatively, management may have to terminate one or both employees, believing that there is no other way to salvage a positive working environment.
Managers often think about calling in someone from the Human Resources department to cope with these severe inter-personal disputes. But most employees reject the idea of bringing “HR” in to facilitate discussions or to air the office’s “dirty laundry.” Both managers and employees are understandably worried about what might get written down in the personnel files. Will HR find that the manager is not competent to deal with workplace conflict? Will HR’s opinions go into the employee’s personnel file to be addressed at their annual evaluation? Will calling HR initiate a formal inquiry?
An outside mediator can often make a difference when emotions are running high. An experienced, trained mediator knows how to work with high emotions. She can listen with complete attention and compassion to each employee’s entire “story.” She can reframe inflammatory language so that the other side is able to hear the message clearly. The mediator can help each side better understand the other side’s perspective. She can guide employees through collaborative problem-solving to help them develop options for resolving the current conflict and defusing future conflict. She will focus on positive incremental efforts that both employees can make to start re-building a productive working relationship. The mediator can function as a coach to help guide the re-building effort. And when necessary, a mediator can direct employees to counseling if they need additional support while re-building their work environment.
A good manager should know a good mediator for those rare occasions when high emotions in the workplace are best handled by a professional peacemaker.