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Like a Boss: “How can I resolve employee drama and also make it a professionalism lesson?”

February 5, 2020
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Welcome to Lattice’s advice column for new managers, “Like a Boss.” I’m your host, Jennifer Romolini. I’m an editor, an author (of the career guide “Weird In a World That’s Not”), and, yes, a boss who’s been managing other humans for the past dozen or so years at companies both giant and tiny, at quick and dirty startups and multi-layered corporations, with remote and in-office teams ranging from five to 45. I’m also a speaker who talks about succeeding at work even when you feel like a freak. And, sometimes, I give advice, like right now.  

Dear Boss, 

My direct report is a great employee to me as their manager and is a seemingly great coworker to nearly everyone in the company. But she very clearly does not get along with another employee on a different team (with a different boss). The two recently got into a direct disagreement, and she came to me in tears. I want to help resolve the situation, but I also think the whole thing is unprofessional that these two behave this way at work. How do you think I should handle it so there’s less work drama and that my employee learns a professionalism lesson? 

Allergic to Drama

Dear Allergic,

Let me first say this: I’m so sorry. While it’s usually a necessary part of the job, refereeing employee squabbles is a loathsome exercise. Petty extended conflict (and, let’s face it — with the exception of a few truly righteous cases, most every interpersonal work conflict is petty) is a respect repellant; it renders even the most grounded employees unreasonable, and it inevitably erodes morale. 

Few managers know how to address employee clashes nor will they even tolerate repeated exposure to them (this is most often because seeing an employee’s ego gone wild reminds us of our own ego fallibility — managing is just one giant trigger keyboard! — but I digress). So they let issues fester and resentments build up until the conflict seems insurmountable and bigger than all involved. But you’re not going to let this happen! You are going to contain this contagion before it contaminates more people in your office!

The solution to your problem reminds me of the strategy for eating a “Bloomin’ Onion” (are you familiar with this Outback Steakhouse menu staple? In case you’re not: It’s a first-course dish which involves the many layers of a large, sliced-but-intact onion covered in breadcrumbs and deep-fried). Like work gossip and drama, the Bloomin’ Onion is both enormous and irresistible, a combination which leaves those with portion-control problems in gastrointestinal peril. Successful consumption of a Bloomin’ Onion involves peeling back enough layers to leave you satisfied, but not so many that you begin to feel ill. Like your management conundrum, managing a Bloomin’ Onion without wanting to barf requires significant self-control and discipline.

Here’s how you’re going to do it.

Address the situation — without getting caught up in it

Set a meeting with your direct report when you can calmly — and with real focus —  talk this problem out. Set a time limit for the meeting to put boundaries around it, so your entire afternoon/morning is not taken over by unproductive feels and toxic complaints. If you want to avoid making this “big” event, address the issue in a weekly 1:1 (which you can set up and track with Lattice). 

Explain at the start of the meeting that dealing with this issue is important, that the blowups have to end, that you value your employee and want to support her, while at the same time creating a safe, harmonious workplace for everyone. 

Start by asking her to outline the conflict in the most straightforward, dispassionate way she can. Steer the conversation to specific incidents; keep the focus on events and facts, not on personalities and feelings. 

Make sure to listen and not interrupt and definitely don’t scold. Your goal here is to help the employee come up with a solution on her own, not to intervene and fix the problem for her. To that end, model appropriate professional behavior; empathize, but don’t indulge in gossip or criticism (eating too much of the onion!). 

By the meeting’s close, you’ll want to achieve the following:

  1. Understand and identify the specific conflict
  2. Identify a proactive plan to work through the conflict
  3. Schedule a follow-up meeting to discuss how the conflict was addressed/resolved

Now’s a good time to check in on goals and expectations

Learning appropriate conflict resolution is great, but avoiding those conflicts in the first place is even better. Employees who feel valued, who are focused and engaged with their work, have less desire and, frankly, less time to get involved in interpersonal kerfuffles (idle hands and all that...). 

Now’s a good moment to check in on your employee’s workload, to reassess her short and long-term goals (Lattice has an excellent tracking tool for this), and to make sure her day-to-day tasks align with what she wants and what the company needs. This may involve giving her more responsibility, control, or autonomy; changing the scope of a project; and changing the way she works in terms of meeting cadence and deadlines. 

Talk to her about what she wants — if there’s work in your department she’s interested in, if there’s something she’s excited about or would like to learn. Offer to talk to HR collaboratively about what might be available to her down the road (HR should be aware of this conflict in any case — there’s always a chance your intervention could backfire, the issue could escalate, in which case you’d want and need their support). Redirecting her energy to learning and pushing herself, to engaging with company in more positive ways, and to focusing on projects she feels challenged by, will go a long way to help resolve this conflict now and avoid similar distractions in the future.   


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