Conflicts from confused roles and responsibilities

Question posed: Two people in the office had a disagreement about a work assignment, which is challenging for the office manager. How do they fix the communication break down between those two so the work flows seamlessly again?

Answer: Sounds like there’s more than one conflict in your office. In my conflict analysis I’d include the two employees’ work issues, communication issues, supervision issues, and also any barriers the office manager perceives to supervising. Let’s  sort some of that:Start with the right questions

If the goal is seamless work flow, the objective is to have communication to achieve that goal. Questions point to what gets in the way.

Which came first, the communication break down or a response to how work was assigned? If it was the work assignment that was the source, would that track back to any of these responses: a sense of (un)fairness in how work is assigned, preferences because some jobs are more attractive, job descriptions and clarity, or belief systems in how the people are doing the work they are assigned?

Examine assumptions

Who thought the work belonged to whom? Is it true that assignments are fairly distributed and fairness is understood by all? Before this started, how clear was it who did what role, when and how? Unclear roles create the impression that communication has broken down. In fact, they may be communicating exactly what they feel, such as hurt feelings, disempowerment, wrapped in a power struggle.

Find the barriers

What stops the office manager from intervening? Who has a stake in the work flow continuing with the status quo? Whose interests are served if the work flow is investigated to ensure fairness, all talents are utilized, and employees can grow in their jobs? When the conflict first arose, where was the problem solving system so that the employees knew where to go and what to do to solve their problem at the earliest time with the least disruption to the team’s work? What challenged the office manager to the point that no one intervened earlier? Is there a conflict avoidance culture in the organization, or no conflict management policy, or some systemic underlying support for conflict to remain unresolved, or all of these, or some combination of each?

Now look at the two disagreements

The two conflicts are (1) between the two employees, and (2) with the office manager. With the three of them at the table, preferably with a skilled Conflict Manager to facilitate the conversation, the problem can be discussed looking at the totality of the issues in the context in which it happened. The meeting focus: how do we learn what we need to know in order to work together in the meeting and forward into the future?

Learning to learn and question

This conflict is a learning opportunity so that the office manager learns how to coach through conflict. In other words, use the time to learn how to solve problems in order to solve problems, as well as to solve this particular conflict.

Conflict often can be resolved with Double Loop Learning

  1. Boards of Directors of profit or nonprofit organizations often struggle with what their governance role is;
    1. training in governance models can address this
  2. Managers may need support and training in leadership;
    1. coaching skills and mentorship can address this
  3. Workplace may not be perceived as fair in how work is assigned.
    1. people need confidence that there is someone who will listen to legitimate complaints

When there’s a problem, the easy route is to protect and defend preferred turf, and complain if someone else benefits. The harder route is to evaluate the culture, norms, context, and one’s own contributions to the problem. The harder route is more likely to solve bigger problems.


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