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When a small conflict grows into an all-consuming workplace spat

  • Author: Lynne Curry
    | Alaska Workplace
  • Updated: November 11, 2019
  • Published November 11, 2019

Q: The tension in our office started between two older ladies who had been best friends. When they had their first spat, and each corralled me to argue her case, the issue seemed so petty, I didn’t take it seriously. While both of them seemed pretty hot about the situation, I assumed each would cool off.

Neither did. Things have gotten worse. Neither lady speaks to the other. Each of them pulls other employees aside daily to explain why she feels unfairly blamed and poorly treated by the other. Each makes pointed comments about the other, not to them, but in a voice loud enough that the other “combatant” can’t help but hear the jibes. Several employees have come to me, expecting me to do something.

I don’t have time to deal with low-level nonsense like this, but I pulled each lady aside and told her to get over it, or I’d have to take more serious action. My threat didn’t seem to make a difference. Should I make this a big deal or let it blow over?

A: This has already become a big deal. Small issues grow into huge problems when allowed to fester. As a manager, you can’t afford to sit on the sidelines while two employees engage their coworkers in a tension-heavy cold war.

Small problems surface in every office. An employee forgets to give another a phone message he took, resulting in a missed sale or other problem for his coworker. An employee’s annoying, noisy habit of grinding his teeth or popping gum annoys his coworker, who goes home with a headache. Two employees disagree with each other’s approach and one feels insulted by the comments the other makes. Generally employees can work things out; when they can’t because they’ve mired themselves in self-righteous stubbornness, managers need to step in.

Here’s how. Ask each of your battling employees to meet with you. Give them the courtesy of really listening to what each has to say. If, as you suspect, your employees have mired themselves in fault-finding over minor, resolvable issues, bring them both into a three-way meeting that you mediate.

Start the meeting by setting rules of engagement, such as “demonstrate respect by listening and not interrupting when the other is speaking.” Next, set the stage for discussing problem issues by asking each to state what she respects about the other.

Then, work with the two of them to make a list of the issues that need discussion or resolution. In addition to whatever issue triggered their initial disagreement, the list needs to include agreeing to speak respectfully to and about each other. In the meeting, help each hear the other’s views and work with the two of them to find solutions or resolutions both agree to. Before the meeting concludes, ask that each agree to leave the past the past and give the other a “fresh start.”

Finally, you may be part of the problem. Condescension dripped from your tone when you talked about “two older ladies” having a “spat.” You let this situation fester when you could have instead heard what each employee had to say and brought them together right away or challenged each to work harder to communicate respectfully with the other.