“Why do I always have to be the referee?”
This is a question we have been asked many times by leaders. The complaint is voiced out of frustration: frustration that the leader’s team members cannot seem to resolve conflicts on their own. Every major dispute, minor disagreement, and even simple difference of opinion is escalated to the leader for his or her intervention.
Here is our answer:
You don’t always have to be the conflict referee.
Your core job is to be a leader. Not a referee. So, if you have team members who cannot seem to resolve conflicts on their own, here are the leadership tasks ahead of you:
1. Give perspective.
Some professionals (often younger, but they can be of any age) regard even run-of-the-mill difficulties in human relationships as serious and dramatic events that require your input. Help these team members see that conflicts exist on a scale, and most do not warrant escalation up the chain of command.
2. Coach on conflict resolution.
You should not be the only person on your team who knows how to resolve conflict effectively! We recommend coaching team members in a model that has been proven effective over time: the VOMP model, created by Crosby Kerr Minno Consulting. VOMP stands for: Ventilation – Ownership – Moccasins – Plan:
- V: Ventilation. When resolving a conflict, it is essential that each party hears the other person’s side of the story. It is not necessary to agree with the other person; it is only necessary to understand the other person.
- O: Ownership. The next step is “ownership.” Everyone contributes a piece to a conflict. This step is where each party “owns,” that is, accepts responsibility for, their piece of the problem.
- M: Moccasins. “M” is for “Moccasins,” from the old phrase “walk a mile in the other person’s moccasins.” In this step, both parties need to express their understanding of and empathy for the other person’s experience and point of view. “Understanding” doesn’t necessarily mean agreement and “empathy” does not mean sympathy. This step lets each person demonstrate that they now have a better understanding of the situation as the other saw it.
- P: Plan. The final step in the VOMP model is to Plan. This is where both parties strive for a solution and talk about how they are going to ensure that things going forward will be different. It involves an honest discussion of what each needs and wants and is willing to do.
3. Pull back.
Once you have coached your team members on how to resolve conflicts, pull back a bit. Be a little more inaccessible when it comes to conflicts on the team. And if you are approached about an issue you believe your team members should handle on their own, toss it back in their lap.
I worked for a boss early in my career who did this for me. I went to him to complain about something a fellow team member was doing that I disagreed with. My boss looked up from his desk and said, “Why are you in my office without him?” I replied, “Well, because I wanted to talk to you.” He said, “Get out of my office. I expect you to resolve that with him. If you cannot resolve it with him, then I expect the two of you to come in together and I will resolve it. But it had better be really serious for you to come into my office.”
Needless to say, we resolved the conflict on our own! Basically, my boss was telling me, “Grow up! I’m not your referee.”
4. Be available when needed.
There are going to be times when as a leader you do need to intervene, such as when a conflict is affecting productivity, performance, and the general work environment. But even if you have to act directly in a specific situation, you should always seek to equip your team to handle future conflicts on their own.
Refusing to always be the conflict referee brings tremendous benefits to you, your team, and your business. For instance, your time as a leader is no longer wasted on matters that can and should be resolved without your intervention, allowing you to concentrate on more strategic matters. Your team members grow in the areas of conflict resolution, collaboration, active listening, emotional intelligence, and personal responsibility. Your business prospers as productivity and performance improve.
Yes, conflicts will always be a part of business. But no, you do not always have to be the conflict referee.