To a degree disagreement is a good thing; it is an indication of a healthy relationship when a boss is open to alternative points of view, and the employee can offer them without fear of reprisal.
But when the situation deteriorates to the point that a boss and employee are not speaking or their friction threatens office harmony, then it is time to act.
The first step is to diagnose the situation. Conflicts over issues may be healthy, but conflicts over personality and work style are not. These call for the right person to intervene. The boss’s supervisor must act. Discover why the boss and direct report are in disagreement. For example, is the boss a micromanager who is always checking over the subordinate’s work to a degree that makes the employee feel picked on? Or is the employee acting in a passive-aggressive manner that dares the boss to act? Conflicts can arise for many reasons, including insubordination or incompetence. What is important is for the boss’s boss to become involved before a conflict disrupts productivity and workplace harmony.
Typical management protocol dictates that the boss has the upper hand; as the one with title he holds the authority. But all too often the subordinate is one whom colleagues and others in management come to regard as the more valuable of the two. Then what do you do?
When this occurs, it’s good to call an outside expert, perhaps an executive coach or an HR specialist who is outside the manager’s sphere of authority. What the coach will do is observe, first getting perspective from the two parties who disagree but also from colleagues who witness the two.
Then there’s a conflict resolution model that works and was recommended to me by Val Markos, an executive coach based in Atlanta. The first thing that Val advises is to ask the boss and subordinate privately if each really wants the relationship to survive. If neither is committed to saving it, then the conflict can be resolved quickly by separating the two. (I’ll get to more on that later.)
If the two parties are willing to work to a resolution, here are three questions to ask:
Which of your behaviors is damaging the relationship?
Which of the other’s behavior is damaging the relationship?
Would you be willing to stop doing one of your damaging behaviors if the other is willing to do the same?
The outcome of such an intervention does not rest on words. The two parties must commit to resolution and prove it through their actions. It may take time to show results but small steps can be a good sign. For example, the manager will begin to hold his tongue when offering suggestions, or the employee must stop acting defensive when constructive criticism is offered.
But if no resolution is forthcoming, it will be up to the supervisor in charge–the boss’s boss–to take immediate action. If the manager is not doing his part, then the boss’s boss must remove him from a position of authority. Or if the employee is not working toward an agreement, the supervisor can allow the manager to remove the employee from his team.
Conflicts such as these are not easy to resolve but they must be resolved because the good of the team should not have to suffer for the conflicts of its members.