Tina Lewis Rowe

Insights, Information & Inspiration

Who Is Responsible For Resolving Contention At Work?

There is a reason referees, not the players, decide about plays during a game. “You two work it out” is almost never an effective way to handle contentious situations between employees. It can create even more problems for several reasons:

*It is unlikely that employees will have the skill, the will, or the capability to improve the situation. If they have the ability to resolve a serious problem they probably would have had the ability to avoid it in the first place.

*If there is clearly an aggressor that person will not see a need to change and the other person may not feel able to communicate directly about it.

*If an effort is made by one or both employees, but it doesn’t change the situation, the employees may feel justified in negative responses.

*The “solution” decided upon by employees may not be in the best interests of everyone involved or the overall work group or organization.

*A hands-off approach by a manager can leave an employee vulnerable to increased hostility and an escalation of the problem.

*In every case the manager or supervisor fails to fulfill an essential role: To develop and maintain a work place in which everyone can stay focused on work.

How to know there is a need for supervisory or managerial intervention:

  • You have observed or heard about an ongoing conflict between employees. (More than one or two incidents or only one incident that created a work disruption for the employees or others.)
  • Someone has hinted to you about it. If it matters enough to mention it to you, it matters enough for you to do something.

The bottom line: When there is a conflict, disagreement or a situation that is often frustrating or upsetting to employees or that stops or hurts work for anyone because of issues about it, it is time for a manager or supervisor to find out more and say or do something directly. The employees can be involved in the process but they should not be left to do it alone.

One thing is certain: There has been a management failure when employees start accepting a breakdown in civility, cooperation or effectiveness as normal for work or something they have to learn to work around or through on an ongoing basis.

A large part of a supervisor’s job–and certainly the task of a leader–is to identify problems and work with and through others to help solve them. Situations that keep employees from working well together are problems that require direct involvement by a supervisor. The task cannot effectively be delegated to employees–especially not to the employees involved.

April 5th, 2010 Posted by | Challenging and Problematic People, Life and Work, Supervision and Management | 6 comments


  1. I was beginning to think it was just me who didn’t like to hear bosses push problems back on employees. I’ve noticed that a problem between employees never goes away until someone higher gets involved, and even then it isn’t easy.

    Comment by Bella | April 5, 2010

  2. Good writing and good thoughts! I can promise you that Phyllis doesn’t let things slide! D.

    Comment by denisek | April 7, 2010

  3. I’ll share a personal experience. I knew that two employees weren’t getting along and told them both to work it out. As it turned out, one of them really was a victim of a bully coworker and by me not doing something, it got worse. I didn’t realize how bad it was until we had a crisis situation. I almost lost my job over it and the bully did get fired. The person who was the victim quit. If you want to contact me, I’ll tell you the entire situation and you might be able to use it sometime as an example. You had some good advice here and I wish I would have thought of it five years ago.

    Comment by M.C.H. | April 8, 2010

  4. Tina says: Thanks, as always, for comments–both email and here. I like to hear from people!

    Bella, thank you for your thoughts. And, I agree that contention almost never improves unless someone higher intervenes.

    Denise, I am very proud of the work of your whole team, under the leadership of Phyllis and with people like you, Mike and the others. I’ve missed your comments lately!

    M.C.H., I’ve contacted you and we’ll be in communication about your story. It’s an interesting one and I appreciate your willingness to share it. T.

    Comment by TLR | April 8, 2010

  5. Tina, this is such an important topic I had to write. Last year I was in a problem with two coworkers. They wouldn’t cooperate with anything I suggested and made it twice as hard to do my work. They weren’t mean, just strange and impossible to talk with. My supervisor said he wasn’t going to be a referee in a catfight (yes, he really said that!). You gave me a suggestion for how to make him get involved more and it worked! I won’t give it away if you want to write about it, but I think it would make a good post on your blog.

    Comment by Peachy Keen | April 9, 2010

  6. Tina says: P.K., thanks for refreshing my memory via an email follow-up to this comment! I WILL write about it soon. In the meantime, in case others are wondering…I don’t know that it was such a brilliant idea, but I’m glad it worked.

    P.K. had asked her manager several times to make it clear to all employees that procedures must be followed in order to save time, money and frustration for everyone. The two employees made exceptions for those they liked and also cut corners to save time for themselves, even though it caused more problems for P.K. and others. So, this wasn’t just a personality conflict, it was a work conflict. P.K. had hinted, talked and practically pleaded with her manager and he always responded about how that was “just the way they are.” He had told her to work it out with them and he didn’t want to get in the middle of it. (He didn’t want to fulfill his role as a manager!)

    I suggested, as I often do, that P.K. put her concerns in writing, so they would be seen as serious complaints not just idle venting. I also suggested she link everything to work effectiveness, including the loud laughing and prolonged talk-fests the other two engaged in.

    As the final thing I suggested a request, something like: “I think if this situation continues a major crisis will develop in our section. Since I haven’t had the training or experience in dealing with work problems that you have, I don’t have confidence about dealing with this long-term situation. I also don’t have the authority that you have to require employees to follow the procedures of the section. So, even though I realize this may sound like an easy problem to solve, I don’t know how to do it and there isn’t anything more I can try. I’m writing this to ask you for your help.”

    That might sound a bit much to some….but I’ve seen success with that approach many times. At least, the concept can be used: Put it in writing, be direct and make it clear that you are depending upon the manager or supervisor to do something. It is rather difficult for a manager to say he didn’t realize you were serious, when something that obvious has been written!

    Thanks again, P.K., for commenting. It was great to re-connect and to know you’ve been reading along! T.

    Comment by TLR | April 9, 2010

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