Elizabethkuhnke's Blog

How to handle being stuck in the middle at work

Posted on: September 2, 2011

Although it’s hard for colleagues to quarrel, as their mutual friend and workmate, it’s pretty rough for you too. But here’s how to stay sane (and supportive) while being pulled two ways.

What sort of issues most commonly cause colleagues to fall out?

  1.  Workplace gossip – the ‘he said she said’ scenario – leads to nothing but trouble at the workplace.  Simple rule:  don’t gossip.
  2. Workplace affairs.  If one person is having an affair or sexual relationship with a colleague it can lead to jealousy, especially if your other friend is on their own.  You could offer to go out to lunch/dinner with your friend so she/he doesn’t feel left out in the cold.
  3.  Promotions and bonuses.  When one person is rewarded and the other one isn’t, jealousy can rear its ugly head.
  4.  Not pulling his/her weight at work/laziness/time wasting.  We all have jobs to do.  If your friend is spending more time at the water cooler, out of the office having her nails done, surfing the net, or any other activity that impacts negatively on her work, others in the office may become resentful.
  5.  Feeling unappreciated.  See #3
  6.  Stress / seeing one another as rivals.

What is difficult about the situation that their other colleagues now find themselves in?

Once you were all friends, now there’s a spanner in the works.  Through no fault of your own the dynamics of the friendship has changed and you’re stuck in the middle or left out in the cold.  Having no control over what’s happening between the other two, you’re in an awkward situation because there’s nothing you can do to put things back where they were.  Your life has changed and you must decide how you’re going to proceed.  This may mean that you have to see them individually, rather than as the group of friends you were before they fell out.  Let each one know you care about both of them and that you’re not going to gossip or talk in any way about the other.  Then stick to that promise!

What is the best course of action for anybody who is working with two colleagues who have fallen out?

Should you try and mediate? Or keep well out of it?

  1.  If you care about each person you could offer to facilitate a conversation between them.  Only do this if you are able to remain neutral, non-judgemental and have experience in facilitating or providing feedback.
  2.  If you’re uncomfortable facilitating, tell each one that you care about them both and that it’s up to them to solve their problems between themselves.
  3. Sometimes people will try to use you as a ‘middle man’ like the corner of a triangle where two lines meet.  I call this the Triangulation Approach.  Do NOT get sucked into this trap.  You’ll end up being part of the problem (“Judy said that you said….”).  If they have a problem, let them work it out between themselves without getting you involved, unless you’re able to facilitate.

Should you ask how things are between them? Or just ignore it?

Stay clear.  Let them know at the beginning of their fall out that you care about them both and hope they can work out their problem.  Then stay away.  Asking how things are only pulls you into the problem.

How should you avoid getting drawn into taking sides?

Tell yourself that you’re not going to get drawn in and then live up to your word.  Taking sides does no one any good and exasperates the problem.  It can be tempting to become involved.  You may want to ‘help’ or be part of what’s going on (rather like people stopping to stare at a road accident). Other people’s lives can seem exciting – the truth is, they’re simply exhausting.  Too much interest in other people’s lives leaves you little time to pay attention to what’s going on in your own life.  Getting drawn in and taking sides doesn’t do you or anyone else any favours.  Don’t fan the flames.  The less attention you the sooner it will die out.  If the upset is causing problems at work, it’s up to the manager to deal with it professionally.

Finally,

  • Demonstrate respect.  You’re not Ms Fix-It.  Act like a friend to both by respecting their privacy and emotions.  Treat them like adults, not quarrelling children.
  • Show your friends that you trust they’re adults and capable of solving their own problems.  Be trustworthy in all you say and do.  Don’t gossip about their fall out with anyone.  If/when they kiss and make up, don’t rehash what happened.  Let by-gones be by-gones and move on.  If they don’t make up, don’t discuss what happened.  Let each one know you care about them individually and that you’re not taking sides.  Stay neutral.
  • Stay out of it.  You’ve got enough to deal with in your own life.

 For more information visit www.kuhnkecommunication.com

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