When you’re leading a collaborative project, you can’t always ensure that everyone will get along. Given competing interests, needs, and agendas, you might even have two people who vehemently disagree. What’s your role as the boss in a situation like this? Should you get involved or leave them to solve their own problems?
Ideally, you’ll be able to coach your colleagues to talk to one another and resolve their conflict without involving you, making clear that their disagreement is harmful to them and the organization. But that’s not always possible. In these situations, we believe it’s important to intervene, not as a boss but as a mediator. To be sure, you won’t be a neutral, independent mediator since you have some stake in the outcome, but you’re likely to be more effective in meeting everybody’s interests—yours, theirs, and the organization’s—if you use your mediation skills rather than your authority.
Your colleagues are more likely to own the decision and follow through with it if they’re involved in making it. If you dictate what they should do, they will have learned nothing about resolving conflict themselves. Rather, they will have become more dependent on you to figure out their disputes for them. Plus, you might not even have the formal authority to intervene.
Of course, there will be times when you’ll have to put aside your mediator role and decide how the conflict will be resolved—for example, if major departmental or company policy issues are involved, there is imminent danger, or all other avenues have failed to resolve the conflict—but those occasions are few and far between.
Your first move is to recognize your authority, but explain the mediation process you have in mind. You might tell your colleagues that although you have the authority to impose an outcome on them, you hope that together you can find a resolution that works for everyone. You could also tell them that when the three of you are together, they should devote their energy to reaching agreement, rather than trying to persuade you about which of their views should prevail.
There are pros and cons to both approaches. The goal is to understand both of their positions (what one is claiming and the other rejecting) and their interests (why they are making and rejecting the claims).
Conflict often carries with it a heavy dose of emotion. One or both of your colleagues may be seriously angry. One or both may feel intimidated by the other. Meeting with each separately will give the angry colleague an opportunity to vent, give you a chance to reassure the intimidated colleague that you will listen, and may surface information ultimately useful to resolving the conflict—information that colleagues either haven’t shared with each other or haven’t heard if shared.
If you first sit down with them separately, don’t focus the discussion on how to resolve the conflict, but rather on gaining an understanding of the disagreement and convincing each that you are willing to listen and anxious to understand their concerns.
Research has shown that initial separate meetings are more successful if the manager spends time building empathy and gaining an understanding of the problem.1 There will be plenty of time in subsequent meetings to talk about how to resolve the conflict. Also be sure in this initial meeting that you are using empathy (“That must have been really hard for you”) and not sympathy (“I feel sorry for what you have been through”). An expression of empathy is respectful but relatively neutral and it does not imply support for the person’s position.
The risk in starting separately is that each colleague may think that the other is going to use that meeting to sway you to the other’s perspective. You can avoid this by explaining that the purpose of the meeting is to understand both sides of what is going on, not to form an opinion on who is right and who is wrong.
Meeting jointly at first has its upsides too. Giving each a chance to do some controlled venting in a joint session may clear the air between them. You should check with both before proposing this approach since you want to be sure that they can engage in such a session without losing their composure, making resolution even more difficult. And be sure to set some ground rules—each will have a turn with no interruptions, for example—before you begin and be prepared to tightly control the session and even break it off if you cannot control it; otherwise it can turn brutal.
Another good reason to have your colleagues meet together is that ultimately, they need to own the resolution of their conflict and they need to develop the ability to talk to each other when future conflicts arise. Of course, the risk in meeting jointly is that you cannot control the process and the meeting only escalates the conflict.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to pick one mode of meeting and stick with it throughout the process. You can switch between modes. However, our research suggests that starting separately and building empathy and then moving to joint is more effective in resolving conflict than starting jointly and then meeting separately.2
Whether you’re meeting together or not, there are several things you want to do in the initial meeting. Explain that you see your role as helping them find a mutually acceptable resolution to their conflict, but also to ensure that the resolution does not have negative implications for the team or the organization. Make clear that deciding whether a particular agreement is acceptable requires their buy-in and yours. And then set out some rules for whenever you meet together. For example, treat each with respect and don’t interrupt.
The goal of the initial meeting is to have them leave with emotions abated and feeling respected by you, if not yet by each other. With that done, you can then bring them together (if you didn’t meet jointly the first time) and focus on getting the information that you all need in order to resolve the conflict.
In order to resolve the conflict, you’ll need to know from both people their positions (what each wants), interests (why each is taking that position, how the position reflects their needs and concerns), and priorities (what is more and less important to each and why).
You can gather this information by doing several things: asking “why?” or “why not?” questions to uncover the interests that underlie their positions, listening carefully to identify those interests, and reformulating what you think you understand about one colleague’s interests to make sure you understand and that the other colleague also is hearing them.
There are several ways that these discussions can go wrong. For one, either colleague can try to convince you that their view of the facts is the only correct view, that their position is the “right” one, or that they should prevail because they have more power. We call these facts, rights, and power arguments, and they are detrimental because they distract everyone from seeking a resolution that will satisfy everyone’s interests.
The facts argument is an interesting one. Both colleagues may have been at the same scene, but each remembers it differently. They both think that if they could only convince you and their colleague of their view of the facts, the conflict would be over. The problem is that even if you had been there, it is counterproductive to try to convince others of your view, because without new credible information, they are unlikely to change their minds about what happened. The best approach to closing this trap is to agree to disagree and move on.
Arguments about rights may come in the form of appeals to fairness or past practices. The problem is that for every rights argument one colleague makes, the other can make a different one that supports their own position. What one party views as fair, the other views as unfair, and vice versa. If they start to invoke fairness, suggest that the discussion be put aside temporarily while you jointly search for information that might be useful in resolving the conflict.
Power arguments are basically threats: If you don’t agree to my position, I will . . . Being threatened turns people defensive and distrustful, which makes them more reluctant to share information about positions, interests, and priorities. If one person issues a threat, explicit or implicit, remind your colleagues of the ground rules of respect. You might also repeat what you are trying to do—share relevant information to get to a resolution—and mention that a discussion of what one will do if there is no settlement is counterproductive at this point.
Finding potential settlements may be easy if, in the process of helping your colleagues understand their different positions and interests, it becomes clear that this conflict was just a misunderstanding or that there is a way forward that respects both parties’ interests. If it becomes apparent that their interests are as much in conflict as their positions, finding a settlement may be more difficult, but don’t give up.
Our research shows there are several ways to facilitate an agreement in this situation. Surprisingly often, parties can simply agree on how they are going to interact or address the issues in the future. They put the past behind them, accepting that past practice wasn’t working for one or the other or both and move forward together. This can be tricky, though. Sometimes one might be willing to engage in a future-based agreement like this but not trust the other to follow through on it. In those cases, where uncertainty is a concern, you can try one of these types of agreements:
It’s best if your colleagues can propose resolutions that meet their own and the other’s interests. You may be able to coach them into making such proposals by summarizing the interests and priorities as you’ve heard them. You can then ask each colleague to make a proposal that takes into account the interests and priorities of the other. Discourage each from making unrealistic proposals that would offend the other. You might warn them not to make an offer they cannot reasonably justify, because doing so will compromise their credibility.
If, despite everyone’s efforts, you can’t reach an agreement, you might need to speak with each colleague separately about the consequences of not reaching a resolution. You can ask, “What do you think will happen if you don’t reach agreement?” The answer, of course, is they don’t know. The only way to keep control over the outcome of the conflict is to resolve it themselves.
If there is still no settlement at this point, you may need to shed your mediator role and, as the leader, impose an outcome that is in the best interests of the organization. Be sure to explain your reasoning and make clear this isn’t your desired path. You might also point out that your goal in having them work hard in resolving the dispute on their own was that they would be better equipped to do so in the future, and that goal hasn’t been fully accomplished. But don’t let them walk away thinking their relationship is doomed. Give them both feedback on what they might do differently next time, making clear that when they butt heads again, you’ll expect them to manage it on their own.
Jeanne Brett is professor emeritus at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. She is the author of Negotiating Globally.
Stephen B. Goldberg is a professor of law emeritus at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, where he taught negotiation, mediation, and arbitration. He is also an experienced mediator and arbitrator.
1. Roderick I. Swaab and Jeanne M. Brett, “Caucus with Care: The Impact of Pre-Mediation Caucuses on Conflict Resolution,” IACM 2007 Meetings Paper, January 6, 2008, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1080622.
2. Stephen B. Goldberg et al., How Mediation Works (Bingley, UK: Emerald Publishing, 2017).
Adapted from content posted on hbr.org, July 10, 2017 (product #H03RNN).