How to Deal with Employee Disputes, from "Great Managers Are Always Nice" by Chip Averwater

Chapter 15

How to Settle Employee Disputes

Employee Disputes

Even an excellent team, committed to the same results, has occasional employee disputes. Seldom is it due to anyone’s malevolent intentions, or to one person being right and one wrong. Most often employee disputes are simply differences in information.

Some people feel managing disputes means stepping in, gathering the facts, issuinga judgment, and declaring the issue settled. But does that really resolve a disagreement? Almost any solution we choose will be resented by at least one of the parties. Hard feelings not only remain but are aggravated by our involvement. The battle lingers, and each side surreptitiously looks for chances to even the score or sabotage the other.

Others believe managing employee disputes means creating a therapy session, getting all the complaints and hard feelings out on the table, trusting that will lead to an amiable understanding. It’s a slow and painful process, and summoning up old grievances risks renewing forgotten hostilities.

Model Conversations in Employee Disputes

Our legendary manager, Mike Mitchell, follows a different method.


Employee Dispute Resolution

Tom catches Mike during his daily rounds.

T:  Mike, I’ve got a problem I need your help with.

M:  Sure. What you got?

T:  Karen thinks the Jackson deal should be hers because she spent a lot of time on it. But the rules are clear.

M:  I see. And she’s upset?

T:  Hasn’t talked to me in two days.

M:  Not good. You two depend on each other.

T:  Right. Can you explain to her that the rules are the rules?


Tom subscribes to the theory that the boss need only issue an opinion and the dispute is over.


M:  I could, but it’s not going to solve the bigger problem which is the relationship between you.

T:  Well, something needs to happen because right now we’re working against each other. What do you recommend?

M:  I suspect it’s going to take one of you making a peace gesture and offering a compromise.


Mike knows an employee dispute is over only when the two parties decide they want to get along. All he can do is encourage them to work it out.


T:  That seems unlikely considering some of the things that were said.

M:  Yeah, it’s going to take a big person to do it.

T:  Really big!

M:  Do you want me to talk to Karen and suggest the two of you get together to work it out?

T:  No, it’s probably better if I take the lead. I just need to figure out how I’ll approach it.

M:  I appreciate your willingness, Tom. You and Karen make a good team working together.


Team members can usually find a better compromise than any we might suggest. When they do, they’re more likely to get along and avoid employee disputes in the future.

Some employees attract an abnormal number of disagreements.

Sometimes, the problem is a lack of information and understanding. Those doing specialty work often don’t comprehend the challenges and complexities outside their areas. Cross training or putting them into temporary task groups sometimes improves their understanding and relationships.

Occasionally, it’s an aggressive style or an outspoken manner. Opportunities to get to know each other often resolve these. When we learn each other’s styles, we accept and adapt to them.

But combativeness can also spring from deep psychological issues that nurture cynicism, suspicion, and distrust. Long-term solutions to these are more difficult—sometimes beyond our means.

A chronically contentious employee keeps hostilities stirred up and damages the spirit of a team.


A Contentious Team Member

Mike pays Ed a visit.

M:  Ed, I understand you and Ann are having a dispute.

E:  Yes, we are. I’m really tired of her sloppy paperwork. I have to be a detective just to figure out what she means.

M:  I see. Did you discuss it with her?

E:  I told her I couldn’t read her work and that’s the truth. I also said if she continued turning it in that way I wasn’t going to process it anymore.

M:  I guess she didn’t respond well to that?

E:  She said I have no right to talk to her like that, and if she had to process her own work she would, just so she doesn’t have to deal with me.


Team members sometimes learn from their mistakes, so Mike asks.


M:  Would you handle it the same way if you had it to do over again?

E:  I don’t see why not.


If Ed had resolved to change his approach, Mike would shift the conversation to encouragement.

But Ed hasn’t.


M:  Ed, your work is accurate and reliable. But I’m concerned about how you get along with your teammates.

E:  What do you mean? 

M:  Ed, your work is accurate and reliable. But I’m concerned about how you get along with your teammates.

E:  What do you mean?

M:  I believe that’s three arguments with coworkers in the last month.

E:  It might be, but everything I said to them was true.


Some people feel as long as what they say is “true” they’re not responsible for the consequences. (Their marriages are usually short.)


M:  It’s not a matter of right and wrong, Ed. We simply can’t get good results when team members are mad at each other or refuse to deal with each other.

E:  You’re acting like this is all my fault.

M:  Ed, team members are going to have disagreements, but they need to discuss them respectfully and work them out. Do you feel you’ve discussed them respectfully? Or have you gotten angry and offended your coworkers?

E:  If you knew what they did you’d be angry too.

M:  Perhaps I would, but I’d do my best never to show it. Anger doesn’t solve problems; it escalates them and damages relationships.

E:  Well, what am I supposed to do with these people who aren’t doing their jobs correctly?


Although Mike believes managing employee disputes is...


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Employee Disputes, Great Managers Are Always Nice
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