What to Do When You’re Caught in the Middle at Work
As leaders, it’s not uncommon for us to find ourselves caught in the middle of opposing views and factions. Sometimes the issues we’re facing are trivial, and other times they’re more vital in terms of how we manage the situation and people involved, including ourselves. When it’s a particularly delicate or otherwise challenging predicament, being the leader can feel uncomfortable. But as we have said before, getting outside your comfort zone results in personal growth. So push through that negative feeling, don’t let it get the best of you, and turn your attention to what you can control. By maintaining a culture of transparency, treating people fairly, and being fearless in the face of conflict, you’ll find you’re better able to avoid being stuck in this position in the first place.
Caught in the middle? Here’s more on how to not let it get the best of you:
Maintain transparency. Truthfulness is one of the most important virtues of human behavior. It’s also one of the most effective strategies for maintaining positive company morale, driving performance and producing excellent results. At MAP, we use the MAP Management System™ to establish and maintain accountability, which uses tools that establish and sustain transparency in all that our clients and their people say and do. When you have these kinds of tools, transparency is easier to come by. In fact, it becomes automatic and innate to the culture and never forced by fear or other desperate tactics. With a formal system in place that supports transparency, everyone knows where they stand and there will simply be fewer opportunities to suddenly get caught in the middle of problems or challenges. This takes the pressure off of people like you—the leader—and sends the message to others that there’s no room for such workplace games.
Don’t play favorites. You’re going to like certain people better than others. It’s human nature. But it’s a fast road to building barriers and getting caught in sticky situations, such as being caught in the middle of decisions whereby you have to choose between someone who is right and someone who you like. Avoid this tricky yet common leadership pitfall by identifying if you’re playing favorites with people at work. If so, learn how to walk the line, maintaining that boss-subordinate balance with everyone you lead. You may have to create an action plan around this if you’re finding it’s particularly hard. Also, document equitable performance expectations for all employees. This is another way to treat people fairly and not get caught playing favorites and stuck in the middle of uncomfortable accusations or scenarios. Also coach your subordinates and team leaders around how to treat others fairly and equitably. Ingrain this in your culture.
Address potential conflict head on, early on. If you smell smoke, there’s often fire. My guess is, you’d never just walk away from smoke—you’d seek out the fire and put it out, even if the fire is very, very small. Same thinking goes for when you notice or get a gut feeling about “smoke” in the workplace. Be brave and tackle this tough stuff, asking the hard questions of those likely involved in whatever is heating up. And do it swiftly, particularly if you’re feeling like you’re getting pulled in conflicting directions because the last thing you need is people doubting your leadership ethics or credibility. As you dig, get the facts, never making assumptions. If you do this due diligence and surface the issues quickly, you’ll find yourself less likely to be caught in some “fire”—or the middle of a bigger conflict—later.
What plan of attack have you taken when you’ve been caught in the middle—what worked, what didn't?