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Does Every Manager Get Stuck in Conflict Mediation?

The Many Hats that Managers Wear logo

Conflict mediation is just one of the roles that managers acquire, accidentally, and without thinking through alternatives. There are exceptions, of course, but this is not a role that managers should play often. Most are ill-equipped for it, and the unintended consequences outweigh the value of temporary heroism.

Misunderstandings about the Role of a Manager

There’s no job role more misunderstood than that of a manager. In most organizations, managers end up being utility players (but without the skills to play all positions well). Because they’re accustomed to wearing so many hats, the lines get blurred. “That’s not my job” is something managers don’t say nearly often enough.

Here are some particularly problematic roles that managers sometimes assume.

Manager as mom: In the past 20 years, working onsite with hundreds of organizations, I’ve seen managers do the following things that are simply not appropriate for managers to do:

  • Styling a sales rep’s hair before she goes on sales calls (curling iron and all!).

  • Bringing in covered dishes each Monday for every member of the team to take home.

  • Playing matchmaker for a new hire who’d recently relocated to the area.

  • Conducting “closed door sessions” to give marital and parenting advice.

  • Reading a business book to the team during staff meetings.

I could go on, but you get the idea. All these managers had good intentions. All considered these actions to be supportive and necessary. They just hadn’t considered the importance of creating good boundaries. They didn’t realize the message they were sending to employees.

Manager as advocate: It’s not the manager’s job to speak on behalf of others. It’s the manager’s job to gather input, look at all the angles, draw a conclusion, and take that to the powers that be.

When a manager carries every complaint to senior management, it has two detrimental effects. First, it deprives employees of the right to champion their own causes and prepare strong arguments to convince others. Second, it makes the manager look weak. If a manager isn’t evaluating issues and resolving them autonomously, it raises doubt about the manager’s abilities.

Manager as super-doer: Many managers are former superstars. They got promoted because they were the best in the department in doing frontline contributor work. Having been rewarded for that frontline work, managers often continue in this vein when they’re promoted, preferring to be the super-doer instead of being the supervisor.

Employees don’t mind. They might even think this manager is supporting them by lightening the load. Since the manager isn’t doing managerial work, these employees aren’t getting critical feedback or new tasks. In the short-term, they’re relieved.

Initially, senior management doesn’t mind either. High output and a happy team mask a lot of issues that will emerge later. When they do emerge, the manager will be ill-equipped to handle them.

Manager as superhero: Who doesn’t love donning their cape and swooping in to save the day? The adrenaline rush and adoration of the crowd is addicting. Assuming the superhero role, however, makes managers reactive. They lose complete control of their calendar, getting called from one crisis to the next.

Soon, everything’s a crisis. Employees who haven’t been taught to solve their own problems habitually turn to the manager for a quick fix. The manager, cape slightly tattered now, eventually gets to a breaking point and realizes all the employees are helpless and overly dependent. But these managers often fail to see that they’ve created the problem. The employees responded to the manager’s conditioning.

Manager as protector: Managers are part of the management team. Their primary role is to protect the company. All too often, managers get this wrong. They try, instead, to protect underperforming or ill-behaved employees. They fail to document issues, choose not to report incidents to HR, won’t follow through on disciplinary measures, and defend employee actions to an unreasonable extreme.Judge is scolding a witness

Many a manager has been blindsided by a betrayal when employees don’t reciprocate that protectiveness. As soon as HR asks questions, employees will be quick to point out perceptions of favoritism and grievances regarding the manager’s inaction. This self-protection is simply human nature.

Manager as bestie: When a manager is promoted from within, peers become direct reports. Friendships formed among peers seldom translate fully when one member of the team becomes the boss. Nonetheless, managers often try to be both boss and buddy during work hours. It usually backfires.

When a manager is no longer a peer, it means:

  • No more sharing juicy tidbits and gossip about other managers or senior executives.

  • No more extended lunch hours or other rule-bending behaviors that set a bad example.

  • No more making excuses for under-performance, chronic lateness, and the like.

  • No more jokes at anyone else’s expense.

  • No more favorites.

Manager as conflict mediator: Managing a team of capable adults includes setting expectations that they will cooperate and work together. When conflict arises, managers ought not jump in to fix it, mediate, or be the final arbiters of what happens next.

In an effort to maintain harmony, managers are often reluctant to allow healthy conflict that would improve decision quality. When unproductive conflict surfaces, these same managers swiftly intercede in ways that set them up to polarize entire teams.

Here’s an example. In a fieldworker crew, two men from different regions of Mexico had a personal dispute that was largely founded in culture clash. They would never choose to be friends, but the well-meaning manager tried to force a friendship. Instead of setting expectations for respectful behavior on the job, this manager asked everyone to treat each other like family on and off the job. It was too much to ask, and the manager became a laughingstock. The fieldworkers had several more exchanges, including fist fights. Their response when written up was “Well, that’s how we are with family.”

Options for Managers Who Don’t Want to Be Referees

Managers don’t need to be in every employee’s business. If employees disagree, the expectation should be that they work it out together. Managers who get embroiled in these matters usually experience some or all of the following:

  • An employee tattles but, initially, asks the boss not to say anything.

  • An employee grows increasingly frustrated and demands that the boss do something. (The expectation is that the other employee will be fired or disciplined. Anything less disappointments.)

  • An employee refuses to speak to another employee. Passive-aggressive behaviors are noticeable and begin to affect other members of the team.

  • Employees with unresolved conflict enlist allies and the team becomes divided.

  • Eventually, the manager is present when angry words are exchanged. Without understanding or addressing history, the manager makes a unilateral decision for one side or the other. Because alliances have formed, this upsets more people than anticipated. As referee, the manager’s calls are always subject to criticism from the losing team.

None of these situations are healthy or productive for business.

Instead of allowing conflict to escalate and instead of refereeing, managers should communicate and abide by a policy of “I won’t talk about you without you.”

When an employee tattles, the manager should bring in the other employee, right away, for a conversation between the two of them. The manager simply says “My policy is that I won’t talk about you without you. I understand that the two of you have something to discuss and resolve. I’ll leave you to it.” Manager exits.

The manager should also set and hold firm to a zero-tolerance policy for unprofessional behaviors. No passive-aggressiveness, no dividing the team, no loud or angry words (especially in the form of personal attacks). When these behaviors are observed, the manager should act swiftly to document the violation and to give feedback to the employee. Repeated offenses should be reported to HR.

When employees are civil and have tried to resolve their own conflict, the manager can offer to hear all sides and facilitate bridge-building. This models what employees should be doing on their own. It keeps the manager from being mom, bestie, or mediator.

No matter how green the employees might be, expecting them to behave as professional adults is not unreasonable. It’s reasonable, respectful, and a way to genuinely support their development.

If You Absolutely Must, Develop Skills for Conflict Mediation

If, for some reason, a manager simply must enter in as conflict mediator, that manager should be equipped for competent mediation.

The aim is to mediate, not judge. A mediator facilitates dialogue between opposing parties to effect a mutually satisfying outcome devised by the parties. A judge makes rulings based on laws and on who makes the most compelling case. Step one is sticking to the mediator role and not being the decider.

Professional mediators build and use these skills:

  • Trustworthiness, objectivity and impartiality.

  • Active listening skills.

  • Critical thinking skills to process and reflect back what’s been said.

  • Negotiating skills to recognize primary positions and interests.

  • Question-asking skills for facilitation.

  • Conflict style training to understand techniques and responses.

  • Candor to directly and succinctly summarize without beating around the bush.

  • Courage to point out what’s irrelevant, personal, or inaccurate.

For most managers, conflict mediation is uncomfortable. The better choice is to get others to work together in resolving their own conflicts.Learn to manage work and lead people