Fair judgment in conflict resolution is one hallmark of solid leadership. Conclusions about right and wrong should be determined thoughtfully and without haste. I have short-circuited balanced and fair responses because I didn’t know what I needed to know. When a snap decision turns out to be based on incomplete information, the decision itself turns out unfair. I had to walk back more than one of these responses before I learned this:

Almost always, the truth is in the middle. 

Occasionally I get a little pushback when I say this. “Well, maybe sometimes, but not in this case. I know what happened.” But no. Really. When there’s a conflict, way more often than not, the truth is in the middle.

Just the facts.

In the face of a conflict where one person is the wrongdoer and one person is the wronged, my good leader intention is to respond fairly. My natural tendency though was to react instantly and decisively. A good leader assesses and situation, makes a decision — to correct one of course, and moves on. It seemed obvious how to make the correct decision. A recounting of the conflict, verbal or written, told the facts. It seemed easy to quickly dictate the correct response: an informal conversation with the wrongdoer, training/retraining, employee conference, suspension without pay, recommendation for termination or whatever seemed appropriate.

It seemed easy until I had to change course a few times, explaining and apologizing to the parties how I’d acted too quickly and along the way learned a more complete story. When this quick-decision-equals-wrong-decision happened enough times, I learned something. The first report is almost never complete or sufficient. The facts may be the reporter’s facts but almost certainly aren’t a complete set of facts. The other or others involved will have overlapping, but different sets of facts. I had to learn to be more patient in drawing conclusions.

The most simple remedy: ask questions

Ann (manager): “I’m tired of Sarah’s attitude. She does good work but she’s abrasive and difficult to manage. She was late twice in the past week, knowing her co-workers can’t leave until she relieves them. The final straw was yesterday. She just didn’t show up at all for her shift. I can’t deal with her anymore.”

Me/you (Ann’s director): “Good grief. That has to stop. Does she have prior disciplinary actions? If not, sounds like you need to get that ball rolling. If she does, it may be time to cut her loose.”

Later in the day, I mention to the HR director he’ll be seeing paperwork for either disciplinary response or termination for Sarah. He responds, “Wait a minute. Sarah just left my office. She’s very frustrated. It seems she can’t get a clear schedule from Ann. She said her schedule got changed over and over last week. It was so confusing she ended up being late a couple of times and missing a shift. I told her I’d look into it. I’m not sure I totally believe her because she does, in fact, have a pretty bad attitude, but doubt she would completely fabricate her story.”

Before you can get back to Ann, she has let Sarah know there will be a meeting with HR the following day about her performance. This results in Sarah calling the HR director back, very upset. How can she be the one in trouble when her supervisor is the problem? Is this some kind of retaliation?

Turns out, after several more conversations to calm everyone down and gather more information, both women were being honest…but not completely. Sarah has a tendency to run 5-15 minutes late for most shifts, so Ann constantly gets complaints from Sarah’s co-workers. Sarah uses her PTO as soon as she earns it every month, which is always a scheduling challenge for Ann. Sarah’s schedule did change, only twice, but primarily to accommodate her own doctor’s appointment. Ann felt like she was doing her a favor by adjusting the schedule at all, so she didn’t talk to Sarah about what other hours she could work, just made arbitrary changes. Sarah couldn’t do the first change and had told Ann “oh please, you know I have to pick up my daughter at that time”. Angry by this point, Ann did change it again but failed to notify her until late the night before and used email instead of calling. Sarah didn’t see the email so she didn’t show up.

A better way:

Ann (manager): “I’m tired of Sarah’s attitude. She does good work but she’s abrasive and difficult to manage. She was late twice in the past week, knowing her co-workers can’t leave until she relieves them. The final straw was yesterday. She just didn’t show up at all for her shift. I can’t deal with her anymore.”

Me/you: “I know her attitude is an issue, but I remember the last time her attitude came up, we decided to continue to work with her on some improvements since she’s really good at her job. Do you know why she was particularly late this week? Not showing up is a big problem; is there anything else going on with her?”

-or-

“Let’s go get some advice from HR. There may have been something unusual going on with her this week and it’s usually less confrontational if HR talks to her.”

The goal is to gather enough information to reconstruct the situation from different perspectives before making a decision. If there’s bad blood between the parties, access to the more objective position of an HR department can be the best way to gather information. If an HR department isn’t available, talking directly to both parties is critical. Another response might sound like this:

“It sounds like there’s some problem solving to do. Before we make any decisions, I’m going to have a separate conversation with Sarah. I’d like to hear from her about why all of this happened.”

All of these responses also communicate your organization’s philosophy and practice of making well-informed decisions and provide a collateral benefit of mentoring Ann in problem-solving. It might not feel good to her in the moment, but it will feel very good if/when she is being accused of causing a problem. It may also help her to learn better how to prevent or handle conflict better in the future.

Keep in mind…

  • Conflict is emotional. It’s much easier for someone not directly involved in the conflict to search for the truth in the middle. If the executive or a senior leader is part of a conflict not able to be resolved directly by those involved, you’ll need a neutral party to help find the solution.
  • Conflict is emotional. This is why no matter how many times you say to your team “the truth is in the middle”, when someone on the team is involved in a conflict either directly or with people they supervise — one of whom they believe/trust/like more than the other, they may still need you or someone objective to sort it out.
  • When I say the truth is in the middle, I don’t mean exactly in the middle. There will often be accurate information in the first telling of a situation, but the more information you have from different perspectives, the better the final decision. Generally, you’ll be able to quickly gather enough information to make the most fair decision.

While this one guiding thought is not a complete strategy for all problem solving or conflict resolution, it is at the core of fair and balanced decision making. Ask questions, gain knowledge from different perspectives, and gather a broad set of facts because remember, the truth is almost always in the middle.

Writer and metal smith/jewelry maker, Donna has lived happily as a mother, friend, creative, and nonprofit leader in Nashville, TN for more than 30 years. She is additionally committed to her cats, rock climbing, gardening and power tools. She believes that people are good, kindness is essential and artists should rule the world. Find her at BensonStreetStudio.com.
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Writer and metal smith/jewelry maker, Donna has lived happily as a mother, friend, creative, and nonprofit leader in Nashville, TN for more than 30 years. She is additionally committed to her cats, rock climbing, gardening and power tools. She believes that people are good, kindness is essential and artists should rule the world. Find her at BensonStreetStudio.com.

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