MRO Magazine

Settle Those Squabbles

By Richard G. Ensman, Jr.   

Human Resources

It's the one thing you dread: two employees bickering with each other over duties, resources, space or perceived slights. Part of you wants to act the role of the ever-responsible manager, ready and w...

It’s the one thing you dread: two employees bickering with each other over duties, resources, space or perceived slights. Part of you wants to act the role of the ever-responsible manager, ready and willing to step in with authoritative advice and guidance. But make no mistake about it: part of you wants to dismiss the entire feud as nothing more than a childish squabble.

So what’s the right course of action when quarrelling employees present their disagreements and problems to you? Well, it depends. Your response is best dictated by the circumstances at hand. The following eight approaches are recommended to handle various situations.

The Advisory Approach: “John’s abrupt manner bothers subcontractors when they’re working around the plant. I’ve tried talking to him about it, but he just doesn’t seem to understand how he comes across.”

Here, you’re being presented with potentially problematic — but not malicious – behaviour. Your response may be to help John’s colleague solve the problem, not to directly intervene with John: “Let’s think about the occasions that John’s mannerisms are acceptable and welcoming. What can you do to reinforce the value of this behaviour?”


The Investigatory Approach: “Joe made some very inappropriate and vulgar comments yesterday.”

Here, your employee is suggesting that Joe may be engaged in improper behaviour. If left unchecked, it could lead to allegations of harassment. Your response may be to formally investigate the comments: “Let me ask you to describe how the conversation started, and then recount exactly what Joe said.”

The Planning Approach: Kent says “I’m being penalized for inaccurate reporting, but the bad data comes from you.” Barbara says “The bad data’s not the problem. It’s the bad instructions you give to your secretary when it comes time to tabulate the numbers.”

Here you have a mess — interpersonal disputes, process problems and possible inaccurate work. Your response might be to spell out a discrete planning process, requiring all parties to work together to overcome obstacles: “Let’s talk about what needs to go into a six-step process for gathering, collating and reporting this data. Once we agree on the process, you will each be responsible for making it work.”

The Mediation Approach: Stan says “You’ve told other employees that I’m not following the equipment service procedures properly.” Tom says “All I did was try to address some complaints about the way you handled the original work.”

At first blush, interpersonal conflicts are at work here. A combination of poor communication and lack of clear responsibilities may also be contributing to a growing dispute over duties. Your response may be to bring in an objective party to assess the situation and help the employees successfully resolve the disagreement: “Todd has some excellent experience in this area, and I’d like you both to meet with him. My hope is that, once the meeting is over, we’ll be in a position to do the work in the best way.”

The Team Approach: Peter says “The budget doesn’t support what Martin is doing, but he keeps spending money anyway. I can’t spend money that way even though I’d like to.” Martin says “It should be my prerogative to use that portion of the budget to achieve my goals.”

Here again, we have interpersonal problems rearing their ugly head, along with some confusion about authority and responsibility. Since a number of people may be involved in the ultimate resolution of the issue, your response may be put together an ad-hoc team to set things right: “I’d like to convene what I’ll call the ‘Sure-Fire Budget Team’. You’re both members, along with Pat and Ed. The four of you will look at the good points you’ve each raised, and make recommendations on how to handle these spending procedures in the future.”

The Performance Approach: “I can’t stand the way that Frank organizes the jobs on the ‘pending’ table. I don’t even like working with him.”

This problem involves two employees and appears to be based on one employee’s perception of Frank. Your response might be to provide some work habit coaching to your employee — and building a performance objective into the coaching: “Let’s talk about three things you can do to build a more effective working relationship with Frank. Then we’ll assess your performance in carrying out these actions during your upcoming review.”

The Dismissive Approach: “I just need to vent about all the noise that’s coming from Andy’s office these days.”

In this case, the employee appears concerned with expressing his irritation. Your response may simply be to let him vent without attempting any action: “It sounds like the noise bothers you, but you’re still doing your usual good job.”

The Directive Approach: Fred says “No matter what I say, Al keeps monopolizing the specialty tools I need every time I have a rush job.” According to Al, Fred says he gives him advance notice of his tool needs, but he always waits until five minutes before his ‘rush’ job needs to get done.”

The circumstances are clear and the issues are simple: inefficient communication and planning. Your response may be to settle the problem with a dictate: “Fred, I expect that you’ll let Al know about your tool needs at least four hours before you need them, whenever possible. Al, I expect that you’ll arrange your schedule so that Fred’s needs can be accommodated. You are both responsible for communicating with each other, and making this work.”

Employee gripes and disputes are no fun. Without wise and skilled responses, they can quickly degenerate into anger and backbiting. So take time to understand the people and circumstances involved, and fashion your response accordingly. While there’s no guarantee of success, the response may produce a positive change in employee attitudes — and great results.

Richard G. Ensman, Jr., is a regular contributor to Machinery & Equipment MRO.


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