Don’t Poke an Angry Bear: 6 Cool-Down Tips for Team Conflicts

Employee upsets and team conflicts happen, even to experienced managers. The good news is that most of them can be handled efficiently and effectively if you adopt a few HR tricks that help tone down the volume of the conversation. As an added bonus, you may gradually find that these upsets are happening in your practice less often, allowing you to keep your hearing and more of your sanity.

Next time you see ears steaming in your office, or notice that your team is getting a bit hot under their lab coat collars, try these 6 strategies.

1. Divide and conquer.

Meet individually with all employees involved in the problem. Specifically, your conversation should start with getting each employee talking and doing your best not to interrupt or correct them until you have a full picture of what’s going on. Don’t hesitate to ask questions that help them say what they need to say.

You can begin by briefly framing what you think the issue is, and ask them to explain further and present the facts as they see them. Your goal is to let them say what they need to, and, in a constructive manner, get it all out.

2. Pick the appropriate time and place.

Hold each meeting privately (meaning not where other squabbling or gossipy team members will see or hear), and at a time and place that works for you. If you are exhausted or rushed, the conversation will be, too. And believe it or not, even if you are not a fan of confronting conflict, taking control of the time and place of these meetings puts you in a better position to begin thinking about the drama and upset in terms of a workable solution.

3. Use one-way listening.

I’ve yet to meet anyone who is good at listening when they’re in the middle of an upset. As a manager, you may even be in your own upset about being embroiled in the ongoing drama, or whatever specific circumstances are causing you to have to take time and energy to meet with all of your employees. This means you are going to really need to put yourself intentionally into listening mode.

Allowing your employee to get everything out is the first step towards your end goal: a solution. (If not a perfect solution, at least one that makes things better or represents a step in the right direction.) You are also modeling for them what it is like to be able to say everything that needs to be said and not be interrupted. This will help when it’s your turn to talk.
Phrases like, “I hear what you are saying,” “I understand,” and “I can see why this is a problem,” are all ways to help them get it all out.

Once the employee has been able to tell their story, taking control of the conversation is best done by restating a boiled-down version of the situation. Then, without hesitation, say, “OK, now let me ask, are you ready to work on a solution?”

Getting to where you can ask this question and reasonably expect an affirmative response is the entire reason for this exercise in listening. Solutions, solutions, solutions are all that need to exist at the end of this conversation.

4. Don’t poke an upset bear.

As you meet with each employee, avoid generalizations or putting them on the defensive. No matter how true they might be, phrases like, “I find that you are the only one who is getting this upset,” or, “You need to control your emotions,” are both examples of ways to poke the bear. (Think back: how often does calling someone irrational, emotional, or childish suddenly infuse an argument with logic and goodwill?)

Rather than accomplishing anything useful, statements like this create an infinite feedback loop where the affected team member stays too upset to enter into “solution mode” with you.

5. Involve them in the solution.

As you reach the problem-solving stage of your conversation, get your employee’s feedback, whether or not you will be able to use all of it. Depending on the nature of the conflict, you may be able to use one or more of the questions below to clarify a useful path forward:

“What would you like to see as a solution here?” (This may or may not provide you with a workable answer—you’re not going to take orders or make promises you can’t keep. However, questions like this one can help you anticipate your employee’s willingness or resistance to participate in whatever reasonable/appropriate solution you ultimately deem necessary.)
“How do you think we should address this issue if it comes up again?”
“What role are you willing to play in getting us back on track?”
“Without pointing fingers or blaming anyone, as a manager, what can I do to support you in solving this?”

You may also need to use phrases that get your employee to commit to helping you calm a situation down, or that assure you of a bit of self-correction going forward:

“Can I ask you to be the one who disengages first?”
“Can I ask you not to let this get so upsetting before you decide to let me know there is a problem?”

For specific steps to help you confront any employee about any issue, including an easy way to organize and script your conversation, you will also want to read about the FIRR Formula HERE.

6. Know that problem-solving does not come without dangers.

Ultimately, running a business and managing its human elements requires constant vigilance. You will need to pay attention so you can recognize when an employee fires off an accusation or complaint that may need more attention.

Accusations about issues like harassment, discrimination or being targeted, wages and pay practices, or safety concerns may need to be addressed in a more official capacity. But that is another conversation.

In fact…

To read more about preventing workplace violence, please go HERE.

For more on dealing with workplace drama, go HERE.

And for ongoing employer guidance on all of the above, plus all kinds of other HR issues, doctors, owners and office managers will probably want to join our Employer Solution Series, HERE. You’ll love it. More importantly, it will help.

Friendly Disclaimer: This information is general in nature, and is not intended to replace good counsel about a specific issue with either your attorney or your favorite HR expert.

But why not ask our HR experts about that issue ongoing at YOUR practice? Just call 866-414-6056, or email

Oct 23, 2015

Friendly Disclaimer: This information is general in nature and is not intended to provide legal advice or replace individual guidance about a specific issue with an attorney or HR expert. The information on this page is general human resources guidance based on applicable local, state and/or federal U.S. employment law that is believed to be current as of the date of publication. Note that CEDR is not a law firm, and as the law is always changing, you should consult with a qualified attorney or HR expert who is familiar with all of the facts of your situation before making a decision about any human resources or employment law matter.

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