Koan #8: Conflict Management

We usually send the situation in one newsletter and results in a following newsletter. Here the situations and results are copied verbatim into one post. Hence, when it says 'you' - it means the subscribers who voted in newsletter, not readers of this archive.
This situation was published in the 22 Mar 2021 newsletter.


Your direct report Alex is helping on a project in a different team. The leader of that team is your peer. The project seems to be progressing as it should. One day the leader of that team tells you with animosity that Alex is very abrasive and difficult to work with, but cannot provide specific examples of their bad behaviour. In your next 1:1 with Alex you ask how they feel the project is going and they are very positive and excited, and oblivious to the animosity of the leader towards them. What would you do?

Option A - Present Alex with the point of view of the other manager, and ask Alex if they know why this might be the case.

Option B - Ask the other manager to have a candid conversation with Alex - they should be able to work out their differences.

Option C - Ask the other manager to provide more specific feedback, before raising it with Alex.

Option D - Try to get an idea of what is happening from both perspectives then call a meeting with both of them and mediate.


Managing someone else’s conflict at work can be really daunting. It may lead to self-doubt (did I mishandle a situation in the past that led to this) or frantic problem solving and taking a side (this seems like an emergency; must act now!). Therefore before any actual conflict solving happens a manager must be self-aware and identify their own biases when dealing with conflict. Knowing your own bias will be useful when considering the other aspects of the conflict.

The second thing to understand is what causes the friction between Alex and your peer. Research suggests that personality clashes and different styles of working cause almost half of the workplace conflicts, but there are many other reasons too. It is important to talk separately to both people or groups to understand their grievances. Exercise active listening by allowing up to a minute of silence to process the story before responding. Another tool in such conversations is raising empathetic questions that cause a person to consider a differing perspective. This would also be a good time to ask why the peer has not given the feedback to Alex. This is similar to Option D, but the goal of these conversations is to not retell the feedback from the peer to Alex and vice versa, but to set everyone up for a resolution. As one of the subscribers observed:

“I would definitely not choose A or C, because it’s too easy for misunderstandings to arise when “reported speech” (reporting person A’s views about person B to person B) is involved. Option D might be useful down the line, but I think if the other manager has a problem, then solving it has to start with that manager speaking directly to Alex.”

The next step is to decide who will give feedback to Alex. As the quote above suggests choosing option A or C could cause more harm. It will depend on the culture of an organisation as to whether feedback is given directly or must pass through the chain of command. Unless the other manager is not allowed to, encourage them to give feedback directly and empathetically. You should have an idea of why the peer manager was unable to give the feedback directly to Alex. If it is due to a lack of skill, another subscriber suggested how to help the peer manager do that:

“Situation Behaviour Impact - I would advise my peer to use something approximating this model when providing feedback about Alex. I would also inquire if that feedback has been raised with Alex directly before approaching me. It seems the real issue is that my peer is a leader but not skilled in providing feedback appropriately.”

By now you as a manager should have a good understanding of the situation. The peer manager and Alex have considered the other side point of view while talking with you. Now you should encourage them to look for a resolution in a private conversation with one another. Unlike in option D, where the burden of mediation is on you, you set them up for success. Check-in with both of them afterwards and ask if there’s anything left unresolved, as suggested by a subscriber.

Finally it is important to note that this was the successful outcome of this situation. It might be that a situation is not salvageable or involves gross misconduct.. It is important to know that you can contact HR, as they will know the correct protocol.