A new formula to help colleagues at war

Published on

I am often asked to come in to repair seriously broken relationships in the world of work. People are hardly talking. They are deeply distrustful of each other. Each thinks little of the other – their competence and often even their morals. It’s often a case of all-out war: and the parties have a shared objective, “I will win. My nemesis will lose.” Lose what? Well, lose their job. That’s the secret wish.

Unattractive options

By this time, lots has been tried: colleagues, bosses and HR will have intervened, but the situation remains dire. Nobody seems to be able to get through. Things need to be said that no-one can think of how to say without making a bad situation worse. Ideally, people need to accept responsibility and open up their thinking. When people are at loggerheads, that seems impossible. There seem to be so few options:

  • live with this hellish situation with all the risks to relationships, performance and everything else that keeps HR and ER awake at night
  • making sure one valued person leaves

Is that it? Many people assume yes. The answer is no. Maybe, just maybe, they could resolve it. Mediation comes to mind but offering people a chance to sit and talk at this stage is daunting, not to say terrifying. So much so that some people just say, “No!”*. So is that it? No. There are other ways to slowly re-establish trust. Try this angle.

A new formula for workplace mediation

To use the phrase of a great mediator I know, I think this is about going slow to go fast.

1. Ask them whether it could be valuable to spend time with someone skilled, experienced, impartial, external and who has helped others find a way through. How? By offering a different perspective, helping them to imagine another way of handling the situation, help them take stock of their options, or even start considering sitting down with the dreaded colleague. If someone is at war with a colleague, it has been hard for them for a while. They usually welcome a space to talk completely openly.

Worst case scenario? They’ll have wasted a few hours. That is rare. Best case? They may just start – very slowly – the process of moving the situation to a better place. That is the common outcome. And then you move to step 2.

2. Ask them to do something that feels feasible. One approach I’m finding can really help is not to ask warring colleagues to talk to each other about “the issues.” It’s too much to ask. Instead, the next step can be to ask them to have a focused conversation on a specific deliverable, with a facilitator to help. Something that needs doing and which they know requires them collaborating to get right. They know that, unless something new is tried, they would either avoid it altogether or keep sending each other tense emails that don’t really get them there. They know this looks bad for them.

They may need a bit of time preparing for this, exploring how the meeting will run, what will be discussed, what happens if they find it too much etc. This is where confidential individual sessions with the facilitator are so important. I often work in the financial sector, so I have a formula:

3. Then build on it. Eventually you may get to a full mediation discussing all the issues.

A better way?

We know trust is critical.

We know it is easily broken and hard to repair.

We believe it is worth taking a little time over it to slowly nurture it back to life.

We believe it requires a flexible approach.

We’d love to know your experience with this.

*or “Non!” if they are French, like me.

More from

Sophie Clifford

Conducting investigations: a reflection on ITV and Philip Schofield

The recent news involving ITV and Philip Schofield has drawn parallels to some of the difficult decisions we help clients make around investigations.

Bad conduct: staying impartial and meeting them where they are

Conduct scandals are rife in so many of our institutions; that does not detract from the right everyone has to fairness. What does it take to be fair in the face of scandalous allegations?

Parents, careers and gender equality : where we are, where we will be, how to get where we want to be

When it comes to work, employers need to do much more to help achieve gender equality at this crucial time when a couple starts a family.