Let's say you walk into work on Monday morning and two of your top employees are sniping at each other. You aren’t sure what the disagreement is about, but you assume that the subject matter is petty so you turn on your computer, roll your eyes, and get started with your day.
Pretty soon, verbal fireworks start exploding in the office. Uh-oh.
“Employees often don’t resolve disagreements themselves; they usually will just fester and the situation will get worse,” says Robin Throckmorton, MA, SPHR, president of Strategic Human Resources, Inc., an HR consultancy based in Cincinnati. “Since they are together all day, employees may need someone to intervene; otherwise an A-player may hit the door because they can’t take the stress.”
Here’s what to do:
Step 1: Consider your neutrality
Small business settings are often an extension of one’s personal life and lines can blur between ‘colleague’ and ‘friend.’ Therefore, small business owners may have their own opinion on the topic at hand. Before mediating, determine out your stance.
“Ask yourself, ‘can you be neutral?’” says Vivian Scott, certified mediator and author of Conflict Resolution at Work for Dummies. “If not, you may want to hire a third party mediator.”
Step 2: Pick a consequence
“Decide what you are willing to do if the fight cannot be resolved,” Scott says. “Are you willing to let one or both of the employees go? Think about this internally and decide upfront. That way, you will know what to do if things don’t work out.”
Step 3: Choose the right place
As an employee, the only thing worse that working in the middle of a firestorm is hearing mediation attempts (i.e. yelling and forceful words) from behind a porous conference room door. As a small business owner, it is important to help settle the score outside the office.
“Sit the two parties down in a neutral spot like a coffee shop,” Scott suggests.
Step 4: Allow talk time
At the beginning of the meeting, allow each person to speak independently.
“People are really good at having circular conversations and jumping all over the place when they are upset,” she says. “One way to focus the conversation and move it into the future is to allow each person time to say what they want to say without any interruptions. This will help that person get it out and will also force the other person to listen.”
Step 5: Build an agenda
After each party states their piece, Scott suggests writing down the topics and issues discussed, not solutions.
“Employees will have had a lot of practice arguing solutions, not discussing topics,” she says. “Keep the conversation focused on the topics at hand and then work on the solutions together.”
Step 6: Discuss topics
Next, ask the employees to talk about how they want each topic addressed moving forward, Scott advises. Don’t focus on the past.
“If they disagree on how things should operate moving forward, help them understand what it is that each one wants regarding the topic,” she says. “Make sure the conversation focuses on the problem, not the person.”
Step 7: Agree and follow-up
Once the topics are discussed and agreements have been reached, get everything in writing.
“It will formalize the agreement in a serious way and give both parties a reference,” Scott says. “Make sure to follow-up to see how things are going on a regular basis.”