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Do Not Get Caught in the Middle: How to Avoid Becoming a Mediator for Employees

When I was a young boy my friends and I would often play "monkey in the Middle".  It was a rather cruel but fun game.  The "monkey" was the person in between two others who would throw a ball back and forth.  The "monkey" would run back and forth jumping to catch, or at least touch, the ball.  Once touched the person who threw it would then take the "monkey's" place in the middle.  We counted the number of throws and kept score. The one who had thrown the ball the most times was the winner.  In other words, the one who was able to stay out of the middle the longest won.

As a leader have you ever found yourself in the middle of a conflict between two employees? Have you ever been able to mediate a solution for them?  How much time did it take?  How much energy did you expend?  Furthermore, were you able to resolve the issue between them and feel confident it would not return?  I doubt it.  Intermediaries usually end up running back and forth trying to understand each side of the argument, reaching for the "ball", rarely touching it, and often ending up an "exhausted loser".

How can we avoid this unfortunate, ineffective, and wasteful situation as leaders?  We must create an environment of engagement and autonomy.  We must avoid creating an environment of dependency, victimhood, and bureaucracy.  When employees are autonomous, and therefore responsible for resolving their own conflicts, they first do whatever they can to avoid the negative conflicts.  Yet once a conflict emerges, they quickly take action and/or they dismiss it as unimportant.  In either case the conflict does not become a "time waster" as it does when a leader attempts to mediate.

There are three basic steps to create an environment of engagement and autonomy allowing, and encouraging employees to resolve their own conflicts.   First, clear operational behaviors must be created that clearly spell out how conflict will be seen and interpreted.  Here is a good question: As a leader, do you want to eliminate all conflict?   NO!  Conflict means learning.  Conflict is a symptom of two differing points of view or two differing methods of solving a problem.  So the first message about conflict is in this list of behaviors is: "we embrace conflict as a learning experience."

Second, there needs to be a tool employees can use to calm nerves and to get to the real issues during a conflict.  This tool can help influence productive discussion and diffuse emotional distress which often accompanies negative conflict.  A leader must provide a tool for employees to talk to each other during these stressful and emotional times.

Third, there must be a tool to smooth over hurt feelings if one of the employees is accidently wronged during the conflict.  Often times differing communication styles (personalities) can cause offense.  A disrespectful offence that goes unacknowledged creates a barrier to resolving the conflict.  It damages the relationship and the trust.  Providing a tool that helps employees to approach each other when they are wronged (disrespected) creates the autonomy they need to remove this relationship barrier.  Every employee must be given permission to use such a tool and every employee must be asked to accept this feedback when offered.

I challenge you to think of a time when you were the mediator of a conflict and you were able to solve the issue between the two people without their help and cooperation.  Cooperation is an outcome of having all three of these elements in place and trusting the employees to use the tools to solve their own problems.  Any problem they don't resolve themselves will resurface anyway.  When employees get the message that they can "go to the boss" and he/she will solve it" they become victims of their circumstances.  Victims cost organizations money and time.

So what should a leader do when an employee complains about another employee and asks the "boss" to intervene?  Gently say no. If you have created the environment of autonomy and engagement with these three tools you can turn that employee back to use the tools.  Turn the employee back and gently remind them they have two choices, either forget the conflict because it is trivial or use the tools to solve it themselves.  It is their choice.  This keeps the leader out of the middle and prevents the "monkey in the middle game from exhausting the leader and wasting everyone's time.

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