Dear Crucial Skills,
I am caught in the middle of a situation with two difficult employees. One of the employees with an animated temperament feels like she can’t talk to her overly-sensitive coworker. Every time she brings up crucial issues, her coworker either denies them or cries. The ‘sensitive’ coworker rarely comes to me with her issues because she thinks they’re too small and I’m too busy to care.
I try to give each of them the time and attention they need, but after two years of refereeing, I’m exhausted. These employees make a really strong team in terms of their knowledge and skill. How can I help them work through their problems?
How Can I Help
Dear How Can I Help,
We frequently receive questions from readers who want to help in various circumstances but don’t know how. Often, the readers have tried this and that but nothing has changed and they feel stuck and frustrated. I’d like to offer a few suggestions—starting with some strategies that you’ll want to avoid.
Common Mistakes to Avoid
“Don’t come out of that room until. . .“ Your two employees who have too many conflicts are a little like oil and water. They complain to their colleagues and boss. They say, “I’ve had it up to here,” and the boss uses a strategy akin to: “you two stay in the room until you can work it out and behave like adults.”
This approach doesn’t work because the boss is asking these employees to do more than they are generally capable of. The conversation won’t start with safety. They probably can’t find mutual purpose or mutual respect. And, even if they are motivated to talk, they will probably end the conversation by sharing jabs. Or, equally disastrous, they’ll smile and pretend all is well just so they can leave the room and please the boss.
“Stop doing the bad stuff, and do more of the good stuff.” Often, when a boss becomes aware of conflict between two team members, he puts on a coaching hat. Whether he meets with them individually or together, he gives advice that is general and vague. He makes suggestions that are not behaviorally specific. For example: “You need to be team players.” “You need to be more understanding and accepting.” “You need to be nicer to one another.” In a recent survey we conducted, 87 percent of employees said their boss was unclear about improvements they needed to make to perform better in their jobs. In fact, 37 percent felt their boss had very little idea about what they could do to improve. These numbers clearly show that vagueness only adds to the problem rather than solving the conflict.
The advice I offer here is based on the fact that I’ve seen these common mistakes made all too often. Rather than give ultimatums or vague feedback, use the following crucial conversations skills to reduce conflict.
First, get your motives right. You have to get your emotions and intentions right before you can talk with your employees. The mistake “helpers” often make is that what they think they want is to not hear about the problems or to simply have the employees “straighten up.” Instead, ask yourself the question: “What do I really want—for me, for them, and for our relationship?”
Set ground rules. Before discussing the specific problem, have a discussion about ground rules and how the three of you will know if the conversation is effective. My colleague, Ron McMillan, recently stated a ground rule for measuring the effectiveness of a crucial conversation: “Does the conversation help move us closer to resolving the problem and does it help us strengthen our relationship?”
With these skills in mind, here is what that conversation might look like.
Begin by asking your employees to meet with you. Discuss the process and make sure everyone agrees to have a conversation about the issues in a way that will solve the problem and strengthen relationships. Suggest that your function, as their manager, is to engage in the discussion because the issue is impacting you as well as other members of the team. As a part of this agreement, note that any of you can stop the conversation and point out aspects of the dialogue that are not helping you move closer to the solution or strengthen relationships.
Next, be specific. Use statements of observation or facts. Be specific about expectations and behaviors, not conclusions and emotions. The script we teach is to make a statement about what was expected or agreed upon and what you actually observed. Follow that with a question, such as, “Do you see the situation differently?”
In conclusion, remember that it almost never works to ignore the problem and it seldom works to just let the employees work it out. If they could do that on their own, they would have already done it. So make some agreements up front and have a safe and specific conversation.