As a supervisor we’ve all been there. Person A (let’s call her Anne) has a beef with her colleague, Person B (let’s call him Bob). Instead of talking to Bob about it, Anne talks to a few team mates to “bounce it off” them or “vent.” Bob doesn’t know what has happened but notices changes in how his colleagues are around him, and definitely notices the tension or “distance” that Anne projects. Rather than talking to Anne, Bob asks a few colleagues “what’s with Anne?” By now, 8 people who are not part of Anne and Bob’s issue have become involved, and have picked their side of the fence (or which colleague they will support). As the tension thickens, Bob approaches their supervisor Serene.
Serene listens intently to Bob’s complaints about Anne, and promises to “keep it confidential.” Bob leaves the conversation feeling good and assuming the issue will get resolved, in his favour. Anne approaches Serene in confidence and shares her frustrations about Bob.
Now Serene is left with a mess. Two very different perspectives of what doesn’t even seem like the same conflict. Both have asked that she deal with the situation but keep their confidence. There is no doubt Serene will lose sleep over this and the challenges and tension between Bob and Anne will stay the same if not increase until the issue is dealt with.
To avoid getting into the same mess that Serene ended up in (and so have many other leaders), it is important for Serene to reset the context of the conversation. For example, when Bob approached Serene, the first question she could have asked was “what did Anne say when you provided her this feedback?” or “I am curious as to why you are approaching me and not Anne?” or “what is your intent bringing this conversation to me instead of Anne?” or “what is preventing you from providing Anne with feedback?” This changes to “complaining” conversation to a coaching dialogue where Serene could coach Bob on how to have the conversation with his colleague, and ending the meeting with accountability such as Bob is to report back to Serene in 3 days with the outcome of their conversation and some specific points such as how he prepared for the dialogue, how he ensured he communicated respectfully, etc.
It is important for supervisors to help their team provide feedback and not rely on the supervisor to become the messenger for them. When leaders can reduce the supervisor triangles and increase the coaching dialogues, teams can be transformed, and conflict can be resolved in a respectful manner.