How and When to End Disruptive Disagreements

Originally published
Originally published: 11/1/2012

When warring employees can’t seem to say sorry, it’s a leader’s job to step in

There’s a classic line from the 1970 movie “Love Story” that has become a part of our popular culture. In the drama, the dying heroine says to her husband, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” as he apologizes for his anger. It’s a memorable and touching line, but is saying sorry all that bad if it can soothe a wound caused by speaking or acting before thinking?

Disagreements and anger are a reality in the workplace and in life in general. People react differently under pressure. Some lose their cool completely and say things they instantly regret, while others torment the perceived offender with the silent treatment. No matter the punishment, this behavior quickly becomes tiresome and, more importantly, reduces productivity.

Too frequently in the work environment, people just can’t suck it up and utter the two simple words — I’m sorry — even when they know they’re dead wrong. It’s not a macho thing either, as women don’t behave much differently when they feel put upon. What’s a boss to do when this stubbornness becomes problematic?

In a word: intervene. When not controlled, these antics can become time-consuming and disruptive. The most effective method is to get the feuding parties together and make each person agree to bury the hatchet — but preferably not in each other’s skull. 

It might seem easier for the boss to ask one of the warring participants to approach the other to work out their differences. This tactic takes too much time, and the outcome can be iffy. It really doesn’t matter who is right or wrong. The focus should be on ending the damaging behavior. The best way to accomplish this is to make it clear that the behavior won’t be tolerated, and if it persists, the offenders could lose their jobs.

Once everybody knows the rules, the negative engagement usually ends, and it’s back to business as usual. 

To promote productive coexistence, when no one wants to take the first step and say, “I’m sorry,” it’s up to the adult in the room — and that would be you, the boss — to step into the fray with your whistle to call a permanent timeout to these disruptions.  

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money. During a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. Feuer’s columns appear courtesy of a partnership with Smart Business,, which originally published this column.



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