Conflict resolution in the workplace: who is loading the gun?

Simon Thiessen

Simon Thiessen About The Author

18-Feb-2016 09:00:00

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They may have shot the sherriff – but where did the bullets come from?

As a leader, you will sometimes (even often) need to deal with trouble makers in your team. The person who stirs things up, who undermines, who takes pot shots at you, the organisation or other team members. The person who conflict resolution in the workplace always seems to be centred on.

When there is a ‘blow up’ in the team, at least you usually know who the culprit is. They are the one standing there with the figurative smoking gun – they fired of that aggressive email, they confronted a fellow team member inappropriately or they tried to derail a meeting you were running. But is it really that simple?

Sometimes yes.

But sometimes no. I work with a lot of organisations helping them with conflict resolution in the workplace. Usually, it isn’t hard to see what is going on. But sometimes, things just don’t add up. Maybe it’s a team member with a lot of potential but who seems to be caught up in some trouble making as well. Perhaps it’s a person with great intentions – but they seem to be going about things the wrong way.

In these situations, you may need to look beyond the smoking gun.

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Conflict resolution in the workplace is a lot like weeding. If you get it by the roots, you go a long way to preventing future unhealthy conflict and building a better culture.

If you just grab whatever is visible on the surface and give it a yank, you may remove the obvious problem – but you risk it growing back as soon as you stop looking. That's what we call the band-aid approach.

When you have an employee who seems to be a mix of good and bad, it could be a sign that there is more going on than you realise.

Loaders and firers

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Some people are cunning. And clever. They have an agenda in the workplace but they aren’t willing to raise it honestly and they aren’t prepared to risk the consequences of creating trouble themselves. Instead, they find someone to do it for them.

An organisation I worked with recently had a classic case of this happening. The manager told me that every new employee started complaining about a specific issue after about 3-4 months. When we investigated, we found that one of the ‘old hands’ was deliberately recruiting them because she wasn’t getting the answers she wanted.

In another organisation, a young guy with a lot of potential was ‘taken under the wing’ by someone who had been with the organisation much longer. The young guy was flattered – but soon started showing the same negative traits and creating the same communication issues that the older guy had shown years before (until he gave up bothering and found someone else to do his dirty work).

Another manager spoke to us about one of her staff – a lady with a lot of experience and who usually communicated exceptionally well with her teammates. ‘Out of the blue’ she had an acrimonious dispute with another team member – with no obvious provocation or motivation. When we looked further into the issue we discovered another employee (still bitter over missing a promotion) had been feeding her misinformation.

There are certain people who are vulnerable to being used in this way:

  • Some people are addicted to drama – they are drawn to it and get caught up in it even when it isn’t their own issue
  • Other people crave acceptance and belonging and do what they think will win them approval
  • People who are passionate about their work, who ‘wear their heart on their sleeves’, can also be easy targets for those who manipulate them for their own cause
  • Some people are very trusting and don’t question what others tell them

Each of these people can find themselves holding a smoking gun – a gun that was loaded by someone else who is now nowhere to be seen.

It is easy for a manager to react to this person’s behaviour – only to find the weed grows back somewhere else.

How do you know when this is happening?

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Well, you certainly won’t find out by knee-jerking. By reacting out of frustration and just wanting to get the issue fixed so you can get on with your ‘real job.’ The first step in conflict resolution in the workplace should be to get the facts. You will have to dig in, have a few conversations and try to spot a pattern – or some things that don’t add up.

Talk to a few people who tend not to get involved in these sorts of issues. They are often the first to know if there are puppet masters at work. 

If what is happening doesn’t reconcile with your knowledge of this person, there is probably something going on. A simple reality: people do everything for a reason – and if you can’t figure out what is motivating their behaviour, someone else may well be driving it.

How should you respond?

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You need to deal with both – the person loading the gun and the person firing it.

The person firing the gun is usually the easier of the two:

  • Talk to them about making their own decisions, being their own person
  • Encourage them not to do dirty work for others – if someone doesn’t believe something strongly enough to deal with themselves, why should they do it for them
  • Surround them with positive influences to counteract the bad – they may benefit from some time being mentored by you or by another more experienced person who is a positive contributor

The person loading the gun is often more difficult:

  • Smoke them out – get the gunslinger to stop shooting bullets on their behalf and they either need to let the issue go or do their own firing
  • Look at others in your team who may be vulnerable to their influence – and talk to them pre-emptively
  • Deal with them head on. Make sure they know you are aware of what they are doing
  • Check your position descriptions and performance reviews. If there are no criteria there around being a positive and supportive member of the team, there should be there. If you do have those criteria, hold them accountable – never let people be comfortable with poor performance and never let underperformers hold you to ransom.

Next time you cop a bullet, look for the shooter – but, before you react, check the grassy knoll. There may be a conspiracy!

Keen to learn more conflict resolution techniques?

This slideshare outlines the five conflict resolution techniques or strategies that we all use. Some are more effective than others – and only one of them achieves truly sustainable outcomes. 

Get the high resolution PDF SlideShare here for free

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