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Are You a Referee or a Manager?

Have you ever asked yourself what you spend your time on each day, week, month? As a senior manager, director or VP, you might be developing or implementing strategies, addressing client accounts, or managing the work of your employees. Or, like so many that I encounter, you may be spending an inordinate amount of time as a referee between your direct reports who just can’t seem to get along. 
Many senior managers find that they spend upwards of 3-5 hours per week dealing with the “he said – she said” of employees. Over the course of a year, a Director earning $100,000 could be spending up to $15,000 of his or her time on this referee role. In fact, given that most manager initiated mediations fail, this number can be even higher. The ability to get along with each other is the responsibility of employees themselves, and your time could be better spent in other areas. 
The manager as referee scenario often looks like this: One employee comes to you and says “this person is not cooperating with me. Can you do something about it?” Then you ask to see them both in your office, and attempt to solve the problem. 
Once there is a gathering to deal with the problem the manager usually attempts to find out who is more at fault so some action can be taken, and the one who gets blamed, sulks or freaks out. This outcome poisons morale and leaves the problem unsolved; these two employees are no better equipped to handle their next conflict than they were before. 
This problem brings me back to road trips with my family when I was a kid. It didn’t take long for my sister or me to protest “he/she’s bothering me!” After a few of these protests, my parents would point out that they we would need to find a way to work it out ourselves. This too is the solution for the referee manager.
Rather than let an ongoing conflict between employees become the major task of your day, try taking the issue off your plate. Ask the employees to work it out on their own. By taking it on yourself, you encourage them to look to others for solutions as opposed to taking initiative and responsibility. And this lesson can certainly make its way into other areas. Not good. 
What’s more, the referee can become stressed themselves because of the high levels of negative emotion, and the impact on the relationship with your staff. At least one of them will see that you are taking sides, which you are.   
If asking them to deal with it themselves does not work, you might want to try suggesting an approach that has worked for you in the past in similar situations. For example, you might suggest that they try focusing on the goal of ending the conflict, rather than the goal of proving that they are right, which often works.
Some who are faced with constant personality conflicts between employees find that they don’t have a suggestion. They may also find that their staff are ill equipped to manage their own conflicts. In these cases, look outside for professionals to assist you. Recognize your own competencies, focus on what you are skilled at and leave those things that you are not skilled at to others. 
Management skills, conflict management or interpersonal skills training can provide the skills your staff needs to solve their own problems. If the conflicts of one particular staff member are persistent, you may want to consider a coach for them.
Either way, the cost of these employee development initiatives will be far less than it costs for you to take your time to try, and fail at the role of referee.

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