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MANAGING STAFF

How to tame two staffers at war: Keep it civil and focus on the business

A conflict between two staffers is serious business.

People who don’t get along don’t share information with each other, don’t help each other out, “and at worst try to sabotage one another.”

Moreover, there’s emotional contagion. Just as a spouse coming home in a negative mood fouls the attitude of the rest of the family, two fighting staffers cast a pall over the office. They’re a work distraction, a detriment to productivity, and a cause of absenteeism and turnover “because people don’t want to work there,” says psychologist Marie G. McIntyre, PhD., of Your Office Coach, an Atlanta business training and management consulting practice.

Bearding the lions is not pleasant, she admits. But it’s necessary.

Face to face with both sides

The solution begins with meeting both staffers – at the same time.

Meeting with them individually sets one side against the other, McIntyre says. Worse, it can create a sense that the administrator favors one over the other.

And surprisingly, the two-person approach helps keep the administrator neutral, because any manager tends to listen more positively to the person who comes in and lays out the problem than to the person who comes in afterwards to respond.

She cites these rules for a successful meeting.

  • Keep it private. “Never have a difficult conversation in an open area.”

Also, don’t meet in the office of one of the dueling parties, “because it gives that person more power.” Meet in a conference room on in the administrator’s office, or if there’s no private spot, “go sit outside.”

  • Tell both staffers that the issue is a work problem, not a personal problem, and focus solely on how the dispute is affecting the office. Phrase it as “I understand there is disagreement between you. But we are a business, so what I need to understand is what business problem you two are having.”
  • Tell them that when one is talking, the other cannot interrupt: “I want you to listen to one another respectfully even though you don’t agree.”
  • Tell them they must use I statements as opposed to you statements. An I statement is “I can’t get my work done because I’m not getting the information I need on time.” By contrast, a you statement is “I can’t get my work done because you do such-and-such.”

The first is a fact; the second is an accusation.

  • Explain that the meeting is for problem solving and emphasize that nobody is to be blamed: “I’m not interested in who’s to blame. I’m interested in what we can do to make things different going forward.”
  • Explain the necessity for cooperation in any work setting: “The expectation at work is that everybody is pleasant and cooperative with everybody else. So we need to find out what’s getting in the way of your working together.”

What do you have to say

Now for the discussion.

Begin with the person who initiated the complaint and phrase it as “Staffer A, why don’t you describe your concerns here?”

Then to the next person: “Staffer B, what’s your view of this?”

Stick to the rules. If A says B talks too much, ask why that’s a work problem. The answer should be along the lines of “it’s a work problem because it makes it difficult for me to concentrate on my job.”

Ask each party “what would be a solution for you?”

Reiterate each person’s suggestion and then be the manager: “here’s my suggestion for how to proceed.”

Ask each side “how do you both feel about this?”

If there’s agreement, set a plan for what each will do, maybe that Staffer A needs certain information by 3:00 p.m. every day so Staffer B will deliver it on time.

Set a date for a follow-up meeting to check on the progress.

And afterwards, send both staffers a confirmation email saying “This is what we agreed on. This is when we will meet to follow up on our progress. Do you have any questions or think I’ve left anything out?”

Sorry, it’s an imperfect world

That works in a perfect world, McIntyre says, but people are people, so be prepared for the not-so-bestcase scenarios.

Often one person is too shy to confront the other or is intimidated by that person.

If that becomes apparent, end the joint meeting and set individual meetings with each side. Maintain the same focus of solving the problem without blaming anybody, and ask “what would be a solution for you?”

Write down the two proposed solutions, bring the two parties back together, and say “Here’s what would help Staffer A, here’s what would help Staffer B, and here’s my suggestion on how to proceed. How do you feel about that?”

Or it could be even less perfect than that.

One side “may hate the other person and want that person to fail” and try to prevent any solution.

If that’s the case, don’t even try to come to a peace able conclusion, she says. Treat the situation as a disciplinary matter and if the unyielding staffer won’t compromise, fire. Some people are toxic “and will suck the life” out of everybody else.

Be prepared too for the possibility that the conflict is unsolvable. She cites one situation where a staffer said a co-worker “drove her crazy because she talked baby talk all the time.” No solution was going to please both sides, so the manager’s response was that “It’s not hurting you or your work. It’s annoying, but you have to let it go. It’s not a work problem.”

A fight for the administrator starts

What if instead of getting a complaint, the administrator sees conflict between two staffers who never mention it?

Don’t ignore it. To do so is to stymie the firm’s operations.

Meet with the two and lay the cards on the table: “We don’t get to choose our co-workers, and it’s understandable that we have to work with people we don’t like. But your jobs require that you are pleasant, helpful, and cooperative. Although I’d like you to feel better about each other, what I’m concerned with is how you act in this office.”

Outline what’s happening: “Your conversations have gotten heated, and people are noticing. That’s not acceptable.”

Show how it’s affecting the firm: “I notice that you used to talk all the time, yet now you seem to be chilly and don’t talk to one another. Your jobs require that you know what’s going on with one another, and that hampers the work for the rest of the staff. It’s hurting the practice.”

Then set out what each person has to do and point out that “you need to separate your personal feelings from your work behavior.”

Good backup: the job description

Beyond solving conflicts, the administrator needs to take steps to prevent disputes in the first place, McIntyre says. And that’s done by making pleasantness and getting along with the other staff part of everybody’s job description.

Measure those points at each review right along with the other job requirements. Grade staff on teamwork, cooperation, and attitude.

With cooperation a requirement, it’s easy to tell a staffer “It’s a job expectation that you are a pleasant and cooperative colleague. If you can’t work with other people in this office, you simply will not be able to work here.”

That has to be “forcefully emphasized” in a law office, she says, because clients “can hear how people talk to each other,” and hearing bickering and unpleasantness not only undermines their confidence in the attorneys but makes them want to move on to another firm where the atmosphere is pleasant.

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