Having a Difficult Conversation: How to Mediate Conflict Between Employees

Mikaela Kiner
It’s not a fun part of being the boss. But you know that if you don’t deal with it, it will only get worse.

It may be something as common as creative differences, or something as severe as abuse allegations, but whatever the matter, conflict among colleagues should always be addressed before it spirals out of control. But how do you tackle it? Here are some tried-and-true tips for success:

Don’t Take Sides

It may be true that certain employees seem prone to drama, but before you lay blame on them or write their grievance off as nonsense, examine all sides of the problem from an objective lens. It’s not always true that there are two sides to every story—in fact, there are more often three or four. Playing favorites isn’t fair to those involved and over time will erode your team’s trust in you.

Have a Plan

Leaders may want to jump in immediately to diffuse a bad situation, but their pre-emptive actions may actually make problems worse. Before you approach a conflict, get all the facts and explore possible solutions. Consult with your HR department if there are legalities to be considered. Brainstorm solutions that will allow the team to learn from their mistakes and emerge stronger.

Be a Good Listener

It should go without saying, but never enter a collaborative conflict meeting and do all the talking. As the leader, and ultimately the one who will decide on next steps (if necessary), you need to make those involved feel heard. Let them walk you through exactly what has been going on, even if you’ve witnessed it yourself. Hear their perspectives. Respect their voices. Communicate next steps if the conflict can’t be resolved in one session. The main goal is that everyone is on the same page and making progress.

Remove Fear

If your team members are walking on eggshells around you, you should step back and reset your management style. Employees who live in fear of their leaders operate in a state of stress, which can lead to lower productivity, defensiveness, and absenteeism because it makes them mentally (and sometimes physically) sick. Instead, take an empathetic approach to get at the heart of the problem. Is there something happening in the employee’s personal life that could be a contributing factor? Don’t pry if they’re not willing to share, but if they let you dig deeper, you’ll often learn workplace problems are not always about the work. Offer support like a conversation with HR or give them the number of your employee assistance plan.

Cultivate an Open Culture

Offices and work environments that share fun times outside of the daily grind experience less conflict. This is because colleagues who know each other better have a greater understanding of what makes each other tick. And while enjoying office icebreakers may not come naturally to everyone, that’s all the more reason to host them. Getting outside of our comfort zones enables us to better deal with transitions and change, which is key to healthy conflict resolution.

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Mikaela KinerMikaela is a native Seattleite who’s spent the last fifteen years in HR leadership roles at iconic Northwest companies including Microsoft, Amazon, PopCap Games and Redfin. She has an MS in HR Management with a certificate in Organizational Development and is an ICF credentialed coach. Mikaela delivers results by building trust and engaging her clients in creative problem solving. Clients appreciate her strategic thinking and hands on execution.