You get this often when managing people. Somebody, often outside of your chain of command, comes to complain about your subordinate. “He’s stubborn.” “She’s doing this wrong.” “He exceeded his competencies.” and anything else you can think of. What do you do?

There are two natural reactions to this situation:

  1. you go to talk to your subordinate, get her version, decide who’s opinion is correct and persuade the other side to comply.
  2. (with time) you get both interested parties in a meeting, have them discuss the situation and either mediate to find a solution or come up with a Solomon-like compromise that should fit everyone.

Which one is right? Probably neither. The right thing to do is nothing.

When you do react in any of the above ways, you give others permission to shortcut resolving conflicts, by relying on command & control structures to force compliance. Consequently the people you manage will always feel as if you’re not on their side, but are instead giving in to external pressures and opinions. You lose their trust.

What you should do instead is to explain to the complaining party that your subordinate has good reasons to react the way he or she does, and both of you are working their best for the organization. Whoever is coming with complaints should continue to work directly with the other person in question until they reach understanding and a solution.

There are obviously cases of valid complaints, where your subordinate is guilty of misconduct. But 99% of the time you’re working with competent, committed people, who get into conflicts because both sides are devoted to doing a good job. They might simply have different ways of getting there, different definitions of what a “good job” means, or might be placed in an organizational system that naturally sets them against each other.

Once in place, your behavior creates a system and culture where everybody is responsible for keeping good relationships with others whom they cooperate with. It’s the equivalent of what Collin Powell named “mommy’s not here, son, broadly present in the military.

I remember once watching a documentary on Navy Seals training. Whenever a team of them got into conflict they were ordered to walk rounds in the sand, carrying a long, heavy wooden log with a huge inscription “MOTIVATOR”, to understand that they must work together. None of them could carry the log alone.

There are no logs to carry in white collar companies, but there are just as many conflicts. And people need to learn to handle them as grown-ups. It’s a powerful lesson I learned from Tribal Leadership and still often fail to implement in my daily work.