Sian is the Communications Manager for a UK charity and has recently appointed James, a designer whose job required frequent contact with production officer Helga, who had worked with Sian for over 3 years. Sian had a sinking feeling that things were not going too well between James and Helga, but Sian was busy and, optimistically, had put the tensions down to early teething troubles and hoped she could leave them to sort out their differences ‘as adults’.
But, several weeks after James’ appointment, Helga appeared in her office and burst into angry tears, saying that James was rude, aggressive and patronising. Helga was adamant James wasn’t consulting her on design decisions that impacted on her production work. When she had tried to talk to James about it, he’d accused her of being possessive and a “control freak”.
Why didn’t Sian just sort it out?
Sian knew she had a tendency to swing between avoiding conflict and over-controlling it; her preference was to troubleshoot on the spot, to focus on specific issues and to try and sort out the practical difficulties. But she sensed that this situation was more about relationship than practicalities, and they needed to sort that out properly – nothing she would say or impose would be long lasting. And she couldn’t afford to lose either James or Helga: she needed to keep them both, and she certainly didn’t want things to escalate.
Sian was under a lot of time pressures at work and was very tempted to ‘sort it out’ for them, but if she did, the chances were they’d simply come back to ‘Mummy’ next time. So she got them together and explained she was going to mediate, not arbitrate or solve this for them.
So Sian decided be a mediating-manager and take a more mediation-style approach.
Hearing both sides
First, she had a private meeting to listen to James who, unsurprisingly, saw things very differently. He said Helga was a poor communicator who worked by the book; she had little understanding of design and seemed to want everything done her way, which was out of date. Sian had appointed him to bring new ideas to the team, and he was being blocked by Helga. He was fed up with feeling constrained and under attack and was considering leaving.
Then she went back to Helga and explained she was going to mediate.
Helga expected Sian to do what she usually did – to give an overview of the situation, hear both positions, and make a decision about the way forward. So when Sian explained the role she was going to take, Helga felt abandoned and annoyed, and Sian had to work hard to encourage Helga to see that this was the best option in the long run.
Getting them together
The process was fairly clear to Sian, and straightforward to explain and to manage. But getting Helga and James to talk together was far tougher.
The conversation got heated as they each accused the other of being ‘unprofessional’ and having no ‘respect’. The closer the accusations went to their core values and self-image, the more strongly they defended themselves.
Sian could feel herself getting drawn in: she had to stop herself from voicing the increasingly strong judgemental views she was hearing in her mind. She reminded herself that she was trying to mediate not arbitrate, and decided to put her own values and judgements on hold.
Her preferred style was to work quickly and directly, but she realised this would have a potentially negative impact on the interactions between the three of them. As an experienced manager she managed control and decision-making well, but as a mediator she need to relax that control, and allow Helga and James to decide for themselves what was going on, and what the issues were.
So instead of telling them what to do, she decided to check in with them. She asked them to each explain what general terms like ‘professional’ meant to them, and to explain in as practical a way as possible how they experienced concepts like respect and ‘appropriate behaviours’ at work.
As James and Helga explained rather than fought, what emerged was more common ground than either had expected. Both wanted a ‘professional relationship’ at work and both wanted to feel respected and to work confidently with their peers – but they had different ways of manifesting these values.
Now they knew a little more about each other’s beliefs and needs, they were able to meet them with more understanding. Once they recognised the positive intention behind the other’s apparently hostile behaviour, they were able to move on and agree rules for their future interactions.
Skills for the future
Sian was pleased with the outcome of the meeting. She had helped Helga and James say things which helped clarify their views and cleared the air, precisely because the atmosphere she had created for this meeting was one of no-judgement, optimism and expecting her staff to be able to take some responsibility for their working relationships.
The whole process, from when Helga had arrived in tears, to the closure of the joint meeting, had taken longer than her normal choice. But Sian knew James and Helga wouldn’t be appearing at her office expecting her to resolve any future problems. Helga and James knew Sian expected them to take responsibility for their workplace relations, and that she’d help them if they needed it, but they no longer believed they needed their manager to decide on right and wrong between them.