Muddle in the Middle

Muddle in the Middle

March 12, 2024


You’ve probably heard it a thousand times. “It isn’t fair.” “Why can’t I do this?” “Why can’t I have that?”

No, I am not talking about being a parent sorting out an argument between your kids, although it can sometimes feel like that. I’m talking about being a manager and feeling caught in the middle.

Whether you think of it as being in the hot seat or as having to straddle the fence, as a manager, you are often called on to find the compromise, sweet spot, or middle ground between two competing priorities – between an unhappy customer and your company (or the employee with whom the customer has an issue), between two departments, teams, or individuals under your supervision, or between line staff and executive leadership.

All eyes are on you to make it right. And to do it by determining who wins.

But that won’t work. Here’s what to do instead.

Become a mediator, not an arbitrator.

Follow these tips to sort out the muddle in the middle.

  • Stay Neutral – As the mediator in a conflict, the manager must stay neutral while a solution is being sorted out. Make it clear to both parties that your alliance is to a good solution, not to one point of view or the other.
  • Set Expectations – Make it clear that a win-win situation is the goal. That means that compromises will be made. It’s likely that neither party will get 100% of what they want, but both parties should come out with a reasonable percentage of what they need.

State at the beginning that you expect both sides to stay in negotiation until a solution is reached. “Taking your marbles and going home,” is a last resort and should not be used as a tactic to gain leverage or assert authority.

  • Establish Boundaries – Set limits on how much time you’ll invest in a resolution. Make it clear that kindness and courtesy will be maintained, even in the face of anger or disappointment.
  • Lead from Values – Your company likely has established a set of core values. You have personal values that guide your behavior and decision-making. Each person or side involved in a conflict also has values that they bring to the table.

Frame the discussion and the solution in terms of what is most consistent and congruent with the values that are at play. Find the places where values coincide and where they differ and explore whether there is a solution that can be found by incorporating the consistent values, rather than prioritizing places where values conflict.

  • Secure Agreement – Start a mediating discussion with an agreement that both parties will abide by the shared solution. You are not a judge who will hand down a verdict or a referee who declares a winner. You are a diplomat who works to create a peace treaty between conflicting parties. Your role is to keep the parties in the discussion until you can find a solution that both parties can agree on.

As a manager, it’s your job to keep the chaos contained while keeping things moving forward. You can’t avoid ending up in the middle. But you can make the middle a positive place, where everyone wins – at least a little — rather than a messy, uncomfortable situation for both sides.

When you see yourself as a mediator, rather than a referee, you can keep the middle from becoming a muddle for all concerned.

That way, everyone benefits.


Chris Ann Williams, CEO