She Started It!-Mediating Disputes Among Subordinates

By Margaret Wood   Posted 4.13.2017

Ever feel more like a referee than a supervisor? What manager has not felt frustrated over unresolved conflicts or employee tensions? With more than enough work to go around,  dealing with resentments, hurt feelings, and “walking-on-eggshells” not only takes up valuable time, but also creates a toxic workplace culture.

Retaining key talent is paramount. Managers need to create ways to get their people ‘‘plugged in’’ again or else face mass exodus.  The reality is that employees will almost always opt to avoid an issue, opting for the path of least resistance. As the manager (and now mediator), it is up to you to intervene and ensure these issues don’t escalate and cause performance issues or turnover.

When new relational conflicts first arise, allowing staff members to initially work out their issues may be a safe strategy; however, letting this fester with no resolution is not an option — if it’s not resolved within a reasonable amount of it’s time, then it may be time for you to step in.

The Solution

Meet with each individual one-on-one and explain how you intend to resolve the  problem, for example:

“Curt,  I’m meeting with you now and plan to meet with Joyce once we’re done here. Together, the three of us are going to resolve the issues causing the tension amongst the two of you and get us back on track.

First, I’ll would like you to share your side of the story, and then I’ll share that with Joyce when we meet. I’ll then want to hear Joyce’s side of the story, and I’ll share that with you before the three of us meet as a group. Once the issues are on the table, we could come together and focus on how we’re going to resolve it.

Does this make sense to you?”

Let Curt tell you his side of the story.

  • Ask him why he thinks Joyce may be feeling the way she does
  • Ask him what he’d like to see happen in terms of his relationship with Joyce
  • Ask him what he’d be willing to change about his own behavior to elicit a different response from her in the future

Have the same meeting with Joyce–hear her  side  of  the story, and then share Curt’s perception of the issues. Be sure to share her perceptions with Curt. They will both be thinking about the situation before the group meeting.

The third meeting is where it all comes together.  Employees may be anxious or nervous about this meeting. Be proactive and head off any escalation by setting the ground rules.

“Okay, Curt & Joyce let’s cover the only two ground rules that we all have to follow:

First, don’t  hold anything back. This is your golden opportunity to share your side of the story and get it all out in the open. We won’t be readdressing these frustrations in the future. We’re wiping the slate clean and  I will hold you both accountable for your working relationship from that point forward. Understood? Any questions?

Second, everything you share and say has to be with the other person’s best interests in mind and in a spirit of constructive criticism.  No attacking and no need for defending in this meeting. This is  more of a sensitivity session where you get to hear each other’s side of the story and hear how the other is feeling. Do we all agree on both of these ground rules?”

By setting the tone,  you have automatically de-escalated any angst or anger the participants may feel. It also provdes you the opportunity to take a softer approach to the issues at hand.


At first, take notice if each employee addresses his or her concerns directly to you—the mediator, causing the other person to feel “invisible”. Gently guide the “he-she” discussions into an ‘‘I-you’’ dialogue.

To accomplish this, simply stop the conversation as soon as one of the participants begins speaking in the third person. Ask the individual to speak directly to the other person as if you weren’t there. If emotions are running high, this may be bit challenging for them. Have them take a deep breath and start over. Explain that direct communication works best.

As their coach, councelor, and mediator, encourage your employes to use phrases  such as ‘‘this is how I feel’’ and ‘‘can you understand why I would feel that way?’’

Remind them that feelings aren’t right or wrong—they just are. Since perception is reality until proven otherwise,  it’s each person’s responsibility to help the other tune in on the underlying perceptions that have been created over time.

“Accountability will serve as the seed of goodwill, helping to heal old wounds”. The individual’s own guilt will allow for the ownership of partial responsibility.

Once they start agreeing that they’ve got issues, and start demonstrating a willingness to find resolution,  the mend has started.

Closing the Meeting

At the point the conversation appears to have reached a good stopping point, you can conclude the meeting by saying something along the lines of:

“Joyce & Curt,  you’ve now heard each other’s side of the story. While I’m not asking you to be best friends, I will insist that you both demonstrate respect and open communication toward each other at work from this point forward.

I’ll end this meeting with two questions:

  • First, do I have both of your commitments that you’ll view the other with respect and dignity and assume only good intentions moving forward?
  • Second, do you both understand that if there is no improvement in this situation  and productivity suffers, my next response may result in a formal discipline?”

Your employees have had  their day in court! Ending on a positive note where both agree to be more cognitive, creates a heightened sense of awareness.  Both realize that if the issues re-surface,  there may be  disciplinary action involved. They are now accountable for fixing their own problems. Providing such a forum tyically brings out the best in people.

Establishing  a culture of openness and a safe environment where employees can discuss issues without fear of retribution or retaliation means addressing the issues effectively while maintaining the individual’s dignity. It establishes  your reputation  as a fair  mediator and enhances your position as a  leader. If you treat people with respect, and dignity, you will get the same in kind.



  1. With havin so much content and articles do you ever run into any problems of plagorism or copyright infringement? My website has a lot of exclusive content I’ve either written myself or outsourced but it seems a lot of it is popping it up all over the internet without my authorization. Do you know any methods to help protect against content from being stolen? I’d truly appreciate it.


    • Hi Paccione22651 – I don’t worry about that sort of thing, until it becomes an issue. I have been wrting for over 20 years and it’s never been a problem. Remember – Imitation is the highest form of flattery. As far as plagerism on my site, when I repost or curate content and repost it, I give 100% credit to the original authors & photographers. 99.9% of them will give you permission as long as you disclose and give them credit. It has never been an issue for me and it makes me happy to see that others think enough of my work to post & repost. It’s all good!


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