Q: Two of my best managers are at odds with each other. While they've worked together fairly well over the years, things started to unravel last year when they started coming to me regularly with complaints about each other. I talked to them separately and told them to work out their differences. That didn't work, so I brought them in together. I listened to them spout off and finger-point at each other. When I'd had enough, I told them what to do to solve the problem. Now they barely speak to each other and each is hinting that the other has to go. Should I try again to mediate the problem or should I just accept that they can no longer work together?
A: Your managers have a history of working together effectively and can choose to do so again with the appropriate help. As you've experienced, just telling them to "play nice in the sandbox" doesn't work. Nor will telling them how to solve the problem. Their conflict has escalated to a point where they need an impartial third party to mediate their problem and, likely, someone from the outside. Outside assistance is especially helpful when:
Trust levels within the organization are low: Your managers need to trust that they will be in a "safe" situation that enables direct, open conversation between them. If they fear that sharing their honest perspectives will just get them in trouble, they may withhold important information that is necessary for resolution.
There is a real or perceived conflict of interest: With anyone from within who would assist them to address the conflict. Being their superior who can and did tell them what to do and who doesn't want to lose either of them, creates a conflict of interest with you. Someone else who is more removed from the situation may still be perceived by either party as less than impartial, especially if they have any authority to impact their employment status.
Conflict management skills are inadequate: Your managers need assistance to clearly identify the issues needing resolution, along with a process for problem solving that is future focused and helps each of them to save face. A professional mediator can help them address all sides of their conflict, including the relational and emotional aspects that are essential to lasting resolution.
Their "hinting" is a call for help. If you want to keep them both, don't waste any time in providing someone to work with them who is experienced in resolving workplace conflict.
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