When two team members don’t get along, it can make your grownup workplace feel more like a middle school classroom. People gossip and take sides, morale suffers, and managers get caught in the middle.
We’re here to give you some conflict resolution tips to handle issues between team members. Our strategy starts with getting a complete understanding of the conflict. After that, we’ll walk you through how to come up with a solution and make sure it sticks.
You might not ever turn your feuding co-workers into best friends, but if you use these strategies, you can restore civility to your workplace.
Conflict Resolution Tip #1: Get the Whole Story
The first step in resolving workplace conflict is learning the facts about the situation directly from the people involved. Don’t assume you understand the dynamics of this conflict based on your gut reaction or what other team members have told you.
Follow these steps instead to get to the heart of the issue.
Speak to each person separately in one-on-one meetings
As every hostage negotiator knows, conflict management is all about managing emotions. With that said, don’t put the two feuding team members in the same room and make them work it out. At least, don’t do that until you truly understand the problem. That method can lead to a bigger confrontation. Worse, a team member with a legitimate grievance might not feel comfortable talking about it in front of the person who is antagonizing them.
Instead, set up one-on-ones between you and each team member. In this meeting, your team members can open up to you about their emotions in a safe, structured environment. If an interpersonal conflict is boiling over, you might not be able to wait until your next regularly scheduled check-in to address it.
Even so, you should still treat it like a one-on-one, using the same structure and communication techniques. Practice active listening, pay close attention to your team member’s body language, and take notes on the interaction.
You might be frustrated that you have to deal with fighting team members and eager to resolve the situation as quickly as possible. Nevertheless, take the time to understand what happened by asking questions.
Management and coaching experts agree that one of the most important things you can do during a one-on-one is to be curious. That’s especially true in moments of conflict. Asking questions gives you the information you need to understand the conflict. Moreover, when you give team members a chance to explain themselves and reason through their own emotions, it calms them down, circumvents their defense mechanisms, and makes them feel heard rather than attacked.
Here are some sample questions based on two co-workers with a well-known feud:
- “I’ve noticed/other people have noticed tension between you and Batman. Is there a problem between the two of you?”
- “Has Batman done something specifically that has made it harder to work with him?”
- “Batman has said that you have been hostile to him. Do you think there’s any truth in that?”
- “Have you spoken directly to Batman about these issues? If so, what was his response? If not, why not?”
Judge based on what you know
When you’re learning about a conflict between two team members, be open to whatever you hear, without preconceived notions of who’s right and wrong. If you get two conflicting stories, find other sources of truth. Ask a third party who you trust to be impartial about the conflict. And, of course, bear in mind what you know about each team member’s overall performance and trustworthiness.
It’s also very useful to have documented evidence of the problem or at least a concrete event. After all, relying on someone’s memories or subjective impressions can quickly turn into “he said/she said.” So, if one team member says the other is rude, ask if there’s an email exchange where this behavior is on display. Ask if other team members have observed the behavior in question and how often it has happened. If a team member starts by saying that their colleague “always” or “never” does something, ask them to estimate how many times they’ve done it in the past month.
Conflict Resolution Tip #2: Tailor Your Response to the Type of Conflict
Harvard researchers have outlined three types of workplace conflict: task conflict, relationship conflict, and value conflict. The first relates to issues with the work itself, the second deals with personality clashes, and the third with differing sets of values or ethics. While these broad categories are useful, we’ve tweaked them a bit based on how managers should respond to each.
A conflict over an isolated issue
When a workplace relationship goes sour overnight, there may be a single major issue at the root. For instance, Wonder Woman may not be able to forgive Superman for crashing her invisible jet. (Wonder Woman may also be miffed to learn she’s paid less than Aquaman, for some reason.)
As a manager, tracing a workplace conflict to a single issue is the best-case scenario. Find out about it early and nip it in the bud before it snowballs into a bigger problem. Your goal should be to get resolution and then move on.
This resolution will look different depending on the nature and seriousness of the issue. For example, you don’t need to get too involved when one team member is mad at another for eating her leftovers. Just encourage her to bring it up with the colleague in question.
If one person is clearly at fault for an issue, they may need to resolve the conflict by apologizing. (They may also be surprised that their colleague is upset about an issue they barely registered at all.)
Finally, keep in mind that the “specific issue” a team member is so upset about might be a red herring or point to a larger problem. If The Flash holds a grudge against Aquaman for getting an assignment they were both vying for, The Flash might be more hurt than angry. The real culprit in that situation could be your protocols for doling out assignments, and part of resolving the conflict means fixing the system, so it doesn’t happen again.
A pattern of behavior
Most of the time, when team members complain about each other, they’re upset over bad patterns of behavior.
These complaints tend to follow a predictable pattern: typically, something starts small and gets out of hand. The first time Superman turns his destruction-of-property paperwork in late and makes more work for accounting, it’s understandable. The fifth time, it’s frustrating. By the tenth time, your accountant has worked up a serious grudge against the Man of Steel. Meanwhile, Superman comes to you complaining that your accountant is increasingly rude and hostile.
Who’s right? Both of them! And neither of them. Both parties have legitimate grievances, but they haven’t communicated them effectively.
To fix these problems, set performance goals for both people to change the behavior in question. At the same time, calm any lingering resentment by encouraging better communication habits. In particular, help them frame the situation using impact feedback, discussing how this issue affects them.
With impact feedback, the accountant will explain that Superman’s late paperwork makes them have to work extra hours, and they feel overwhelmed. Superman will explain that the accountant’s refusal to say good morning has made him feel uncomfortable at work. Each party now has the tools to see the situation from the other’s point of view.
Some team members just aren’t made to be friends. One might be bubbly and energetic, while the other is thoughtful and reserved. There’s nothing wrong with either personality, but the strain of having to interact with someone with a radically different communication style can lead to serious friction.
While a manager can’t change their team’s personalities, you can cultivate workplace etiquette. Step one is to encourage the two people to behave civilly by setting concrete goals. For example, the bubbly team member’s goal is not to interrupt the reserved person during their deep focus while working. You can also separate these two individuals. Limit their interactions by assigning them to different projects or even moving them to separate areas.
Regardless of how you address these issues, make it clear that “I just don’t like him” isn’t grounds for inappropriate behavior. These two people may have different styles and opinions, but that’s all part of a healthy, diverse workplace. Talk to them about practicing respectful dissent and trying to see their personal differences as a benefit for the team.
Harassment, Discrimination, Bullying
In the most serious form of workplace conflict, team members behave in ways that are intimidating or offensive. These behaviors take many forms, but they all create a toxic, unsafe work environment. Managers must take immediate action to address these problems, with the participation of an outside party.
If one team member yells or curses at another one, attacks or demeans them based on their identity, or intimidates them, it’s time to involve human resources. Your HR rep will help you determine how severe this problem is and brainstorm options for dealing with it. You may recommend anger management for a team member who has inappropriate outbursts. Or, an inadvertently offensive remark might be just the reason you need to sign the whole team up for bias training.
However you choose to handle the situation, assure the victim(s) that you’re taking it seriously, not minimizing it. Thank them for bringing the problem to your attention, and make sure they don’t face any negative repercussions from the rest of the team.
Conflict Resolution Tip #3: Get Employee Buy-In and Participation
If you want to put these issues to bed, your team members need to participate in the problem-solving process. Make it clear that resolving this issue is their responsibility, and it’s mandatory.
Alison Green, author of the Ask a Manager column, has this advice for dealing with feuding co-workers: “Meet with them individually and say this: ‘Having pleasant, cooperative relationships with co-workers is as much a part of your job expectations as any work I assign you.”
She then advises holding employees to conflict resolution commitments “like you would any other performance expectation, meaning that if the problems continue, you have a much more serious conversation.” Framing conflict resolution in this firm and direct way will tell your team members that you mean business.
After that, ask each individual what solution will help them to feel better and move on. What behaviors do they need to see from the other person? What behaviors can they commit to changing in themselves?
Once you’ve had this talk, treat your plan like any other goal you set in a one-on-one.
- Document the agreement
- Set incremental, actionable goals for progress
- Follow up at a designated time.
One-on-one meeting software like Uptick is helpful for helping you document these interactions and reminding you to follow up the next time you meet.
And don’t neglect one crucial final step: tell each party to tell you if there are more problems. That puts the situation in their hands while still reassuring them you’re there to offer support.
Conflict Management Is the Heart of Management
It’s easy to feel like there are no right answers when you’re untangling hurt feelings and simmering frustrations in your team. And to be fair, dealing with conflict in the workplace is complicated. Effective conflict resolution requires patience, fairness, and a high degree of emotional intelligence.
Luckily, these are all qualities that you practice every day, every time you’re faced with a hard choice. So the next time you have to handle a workplace conflict, remember the fundamentals of empathetic management, and you’ll find a path to the other side.