Third Party Intervention
One of the more challenging aspects of leadership is managing two individuals who are in conflict. Both may be valuable to your company, both are likely to have plausible reasons for why the other person is wrong and dysfunctional, but the fact remains that their value to your organization diminishes as a result of the continuing acrimony. The following model represents a process with a proven track record, the key to which is tenacious follow-up on your part.
Independent meetings are held with each of the involved individuals.
(Time: approximately one hour for each).
It is important that each person feels heard and understood. This usually takes a one-hour meeting which unfolds as follows. First, hear the person out. Do nothing but paraphrase and ask questions. Your goal is to understand the world from the point of view of the person you are interviewing. Offer no advice or judgmental observations such as, "Have you tried...?" or "You know you're not completely innocent in this either." When you both feel that you understand their point of view, pose the following questions to learn what this person wants from the individual with whom they are having difficulties. Write down the answers:
What would you like this person to do more or better than they are currently doing now, in order for you to do your job better, to improve the organization’s performance and to increase your joy in coming to work?
What would you like this person to do less of or to stop completely in order for you to do your job better, to improve the organization’s performance and to increase your joy in coming to work?
What would you like this person to continue as now? In other words, what does this person do now that you like, that helps you, that adds to the organization’s performance and that makes your life easier or more joyful? (People in conflict sometimes have to delve into the past to answer this one.)
People generally have a difficult time speaking in behavioral specifics, and when emotions are high this ability to be concrete deteriorates even further. These questions convert vague impressions, perceptions, and accusations into tangible behavior that can be molded into firm agreements in phase two. For example, instead of, "He’s obnoxious . . . you need to just fire the jerk," channel the conversation into, "I would appreciate a compliment when I complete a difficult project," or, "If he disagrees with something I say at a meeting, it would help me if he doesn't sigh and roll his eyes."
Analyze Data (Time: approximately l hour)
Analyze your data and pinpoint areas ripe for agreement. For example, you might notice that while one person wants more assistance during the course of a project, the other wants to be kept abreast of a project's progress. In other words, their desires are complementary. They don't know it because they haven't been talking. But agreements don't have to be complementary. For example, one person might want input into an emerging new product while the other wants him to not talk about her when she's not there. (Note the avoidance of words like "negative" or "gossip." Avoid any terms which might be perceived as "hot buttons.")
Create two lists of behavioral requests and when you can answer "yes" to the following question, you know you are ready for Phase Three: "If these people agree to exchange the behaviors on this list, do they have a reasonable chance of establishing a productive working relationship?" It is important to keep the emphasis on "working relationship" and not on friendship or camaraderie. While positive feelings are not an unlikely outcome of this process, people in conflict are not ready to hear anything about a budding friendship.
Meet with both parties (Time: approximately 2 hours)
It is useful to begin this meeting with a compassionate portrayal of each person's view of the situation. Instead of saying, for example, "Mary has been at her wits end because of the humiliating manner in which you've been putting down her ideas," try "Mary has been feeling embarrassed and unappreciated. This all came to a head at a recent meeting when you said that her idea should have never made it to the agenda. She wishes things were better between her and you, and yet she has not felt comfortable bringing up the issues. She's hopeful this process is successful." The other person's point of view might be expressed as follows: "Frank has been feeling confused and worried. He thought that his directives were clear but felt your suggestions at the meeting seemed to indicate lack of clarity on his part or confusion on yours. He has felt very unhappy about the current state of affairs and he too is hopeful this process will be successful."
Then lay out the ground rules for the session:
Only one person speaks at a time.
Make sure there is understanding before stating your own point of view. (Emphasize paraphrasing and question asking).
Speak in terms of yourself. Use "I" as opposed to "you" language.
Then invite one of them to begin with their first request. When the request has been made (you may need to help them frame the request in a non-accusatory manner) ask if the other is willing to agree. If the answer is "yes" write down the request in the form of an agreement and read it back for confirmation. For example, "Jack is requesting that you provide him with weekly progress reports on major projects. Will that work for you?" Or, "Mary would like an opportunity to provide you with a written proposal prior to presenting a new initiative at the weekly staff meeting." Agreements are typed and you and each participant receive a copy.
No small part of the success of the third party intervention process is the explicit participant awareness that they will be meeting again to discuss the extent to which each perceives the other as adhering to the agreements.
The agreements are set on a page, allowing each person to independently rate them. The following format is generally used.
Using the space provided, please rate the extent to which each agreement has been kept. Use the following key:
5 = Almost Always
4 = Often
3 = Sometimes
2 = Rarely
1 = Almost Never
____ 1. Jack will listen to Mary's suggestions at weekly meetings. He will withhold judgment until he fully understands. Concerns will be voiced with courtesy and respect.
____ 2. Mary will prepare meeting remarks in advance so that ideas are presented with clarity and completeness.
Agreements that score a 4 or 5 should be recognized and celebrated. Items scoring 3 or lower should be discussed. For example, "Is this agreement still relevant? If so, what do we need to do in order to move it to a 4 or 5?
Subsequent follow-through meetings are scheduled on an as needed basis depending on the intensity and complexity of the originating problem and the availability of the participants. Generally, meetings cluster more tightly at the beginning and become less frequent as participants seem to be adhering to the agreements. For example, participants meet weekly for the first four weeks, then bi-weekly, then monthly, and so on.
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