This is part 3 in a four-part series about what to do when you witness dysfunction on your team. Each post provides a better alternative to being a hapless bystander. In the first post, we talked about how to help if the boss is bullying your colleague. In the second, we got into the all-too-common scenario of being on the receiving end of passive-aggressiveness from a teammate. Today, how to handle it when your teammates are fighting.
Don’t be a Bystander to the Fight
It’s tempting to stay as far away from dueling colleagues as possible, but your teammates will probably be stuck for a while. If they’re fighting, they’ve probably already been hijacked by their emotions and consumed by the urge to protect their territory. In that state, listening objectively is difficult, let alone finding a path toward a satisfactory resolution. At that point, they’re only thinking about protecting their interests.
You, on the other hand, don’t have a horse in the race. Your only interest in getting beyond the unpleasant and unproductive conflict so everybody can get back to work. That means you’re well-positioned to help them out.
Getting involved when two colleagues are fighting will require you to overcome the terrible but deep-seated advice to mind your own business. So, if you were thinking, “Shouldn’t I mind my own business,” let me remind you that you work on the same team, in the same organization as the people who are waylaying things with this unproductive fight, so technically, it IS your business.
And now that I’m done being literal and pedantic, I’ll be practical. In my experience, it takes much longer and leaves room for significantly more damage if you leave them to battle royale and watch from the wings. So help them out, do mind your business.
How To Intervene When Teammates Are in Conflict
If your colleagues are fighting, your best option is to take on the role of facilitator and broker. You’re there to broker a better connection between the two parties. Here’s my playbook when I am in that position.
Communication breaks down in a hurry when people are fighting. You can be their outsourced communication coordinator. The main gift you’ll bring is being a better listener than either of the warring factions is likely to be. As you listen, try to pick up the facts they’re trying to convey, the feelings that are being evoked, and especially try to figure out what the fight is really about.
Here are a few lines you can use to make sure each party is hearing what the other is thinking (and feeling).
“What I heard Lucy say is….”
“Phillipe, is it fair to say you’re feeling x?”
“That’s not how I understood Raj’s point. Raj, did you mean…?”
“I get the sense that this is about more than just a new software release….”
If you stay calm and neutral, you’ll probably be able to figure out what your colleagues are really fighting about. As you form hypotheses, test them out. If you get a positive response, repeat it so it lands with the other person. Repeat the same process for person #2. You’re trying to uncover what the argument is really about for them.
“For you, this is about giving a fair shake to our team in Wichita. Is that right?”
“You’re concerned that implementing this will hurt morale. Is that what you’re saying?”
“This is an issue of fairness for you, right?”
I think about this process like solving an algebra word problem (sorry if mentioning math word problems just triggered long-suppressed high school trauma). You’re getting a slew of words, some of which seem pertinent but others that are there to throw you off. Your job is to sift through it all and figure out the two equations from which you can solve for the unknown.
It’s the exact same in a conflict situation. Figure out each person’s equation, their interests, and what they’re fighting for, and then you just need to figure out a solution that works for both.
You can tee your colleagues up to solve the issue now that good communication and articulation have helped you figure out the two equations.
Your next step is to encourage the process of developing a plan that works for both of your teammates.
In many situations, once you’ve helped them hear one another and get at the root causes of the fight, they might be able to take it from there without much assistance. But don’t run off if they still need more support.
For example, you might need to use a few neutral prompts to get them pointed in the right direction.
“What would be helpful for you?”
“What might be a good resolution for this?”
“How could you incorporate both of your team’s interests in the plan?”
“Which of the things you’re asking for could you live without?”
Finally, you can do a great service by helping them stick the landing on their agreement. So often, the whole process of fighting is so aversive that the combatants are in a hurry to bolt as soon as they find something near enough to a resolution. The problem is that they probably still have slightly different perspectives on what they agreed to.
At this stage, bar the door. Don’t let anyone leave until they’ve been specific about who has agreed to do what and by when. Then, ideally, help them out by writing it on a whiteboard or typing it into a shared document. That way, it’s less likely that they’ll run off in different directions and end up finger-pointing and saying, “I knew you’d never follow through.”
If you’re like me, you find conflict aversive and might be tempted to excuse yourself or quietly check your email when colleagues start to fight. But they’re probably digging deeper and desperately needing a little help. So don’t be the witness to their dysfunction; help them get to the other side of it constructively.