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Conflict resolution amongst employees can be tricky business. LinkedIn VP Fred Kofman shares some tips in handling office conflict.

By Fred Kofman
Philosopher and Vice President at Linkedin

You shouldn’t listen to an employee who wants help to solve a conflict with another.

You might feel proud of “mediating” among your team members as you discuss the problem with each one of them. Such mediation, however, is a poor way to resolve matters. The pairwise processing of information prevents creative dialogue.

Consider Joe and Sally, who report to Carla. Joe tells Carla what he thinks ought to be done and why Sally is wrong. Sally tells Carla what she thinks ought to be done and why Joe is wrong. Carla tries to figure out who is right, and comes up with her own idea. Joe, Sally and Carla are not working together, which is what they should do to find the best solution.

These kind of situations, known as unilateral escalations, have more negative consequences.

First, they waste everybody’s time – especially the manager’s. Instead of one round of discussions, at least two or three are required.

Second, they create bad blood between the team members. Each believes that the other is going behind his or her back to lobby the boss, and rightly so.

Third, they foster a political culture where everybody strives to secure a 500-pound gorilla – the manager – to play for their team.

To avoid end runs, I advise my clients to establish the following principles:

  1. Information is free. Everybody can speak to anybody about any issue they find relevant.
  2. If two people have a conflict they must first try to solve it among themselves through interest-based negotiation.
  3. If they can’t reach an agreement, they must bring the problem to their manager together. (If they don’t report to the same manager, they must call a meeting and present the problem to the two managers together.)
  4. They must present the disagreement as a shared narrative with alternative resolutions, highlighting the trade-offs they cannot resolve without the manager’s help.
  5. If one of the parties (e.g. Sally) refuses to escalate jointly, the other must inform her that he’ll do it alone and invite her, once again, to bring the matter “up” together.
  6. If the reluctant party continues to refuse, the other can then escalate unilaterally.

To support this process, the manager must refuse to listen to any argument brought to her unilaterally unless she obtains an affirmative answer to the following questions:

  1. “Have you and your colleague tried to resolve this problem using constructive negotiation?” If the answer is “no,” then, “Please try that first.”
  2. “Have you invited your colleague to come escalate the problem with you?” If the answer is “no,” then, “Please invite him first.”
  3. “Have you told your colleague that if he didn’t come with you, you would bring the problem to me alone?” If the answer is “no,” then “Please tell him first.”

If the manager gets three yeses, she should call the missing colleague and ask him to attend. This sets a cultural norm: It is not acceptable to refuse to escalate jointly.

In the ‘90s, I worked with General Motors to change the way they developed and produced vehicles. The company was organized as a matrix, with the functional vice presidents (design, engineering, manufacturing, purchasing, etc.) on top of the columns and the chief engineers of the different platforms at the left of the rows. The VPs were three or four levels up the hierarchy from the engineers. As each one of them pursued their functional goals, it was very difficult to integrate the vehicle. One of my contacts described the process as the proverbial horse being put together by the proverbial committee.

Following Toyota’s example, GM implemented the Vehicle Line Executive Program (VLE) to provide integrative escalation within each platform. The VLEs had enough authority to balance the functional VPs and optimize for their vehicle when conflicts arose. The VLEs adopted this escalation process with outstanding results.

The same joint escalation process applies if the issue is between an employee and her manager. Let’s say that Sally reports to Joe who reports to Carla. Sally feels that Joe’s idea has a significant risk. Sally and Joe would discuss the matter. If neither can convince the other through rational argument (which does not involve authority), both of them can seek Carla’s help, presenting the case collaboratively.

There is an exception to these rules. When an employee fears retribution, as in whistle blowing or harassment, it is valid for him or her to talk to the manager alone.

Some managers consider that any escalation is a failure of their employees. “Upward delegation” is the scornful term they apply to any requests for help in mediating an issue.

Although it is possible for employees to shirk their responsibility and attempt to transfer it to their bosses, it is an incorrect generalization to think that all escalations are due to incompetence. If the issue under contention has global implications, it is essential that the parties involve a manager in the discussion. She is the only one with enough information to evaluate global tradeoffs.

Would you be willing to try this process in your team? If you do, please let me know how it goes.


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