When Employees Don't Get Along

In conflict situations between members of your team, consider yourself, in effect, a third party — a very interested third party. “In this corner weighing 175 pounds, from Hoboken, New Jersey — Pat, the financial wizard. And in this corner, weighing 115 pounds, from Duxbury, Massachusetts — Dawn, the marketing maven.” What do you do when two (or more) of your employees, who must work closely with one another, like Pat and Dawn, don't like one another?

First of all, whether or not employees like one another is not what is of interest here. A positive, accommodating work environment is not predicated on individuals liking one another. Sure, it helps if your team can give a group hug at the end of a day's labor. But it's not a professional requirement — and a rather implausible one at that. Respecting one another and their job roles is another story.

Again, you can apply the concept of compartmentalization. It's the various job functions that have to get done and done well. If employees can do their respective jobs, working alongside coworkers whom they dislike personally, then that's peachy keen, and there's nothing you can or should do about it. If, however, the animus felt between employees filters down into less-than-adequate job performances, you've got to act and act swiftly.

But how do you deal with performance problems that very often stem from something outside the business realm? The first thing that you do is accept the fact that it is now a business problem, i.e., your problem. Also recognize that the problem has to do with performance breakdown, not solving a Hatfield — McCoy feud between two or more people, which may very well be outside your scope.

When people from all over the country and even the world, from different backgrounds and upbringings, with different values and habits, come together in a work setting, there are inevitably going to be conflicts. Some of this discord often stems from the fact that people just plain don't like one another. Your job as a coach is not to harangue employees on celebrating differences or loving one another come what may. These kinds of talks littered with trite bromides invariably do more harm than good. Employees don't ever like feeling that they're being talked down to. Always talk up to your employees. It's more uplifting.

Let's return once more to employees Pat and Dawn and their dislike for one another. Let's take their mutual disdain a step further with their job performances suffering as a result of it. What do you do? Call Pat in on the carpet and talk to him. Tell him precisely what's expected of him as an employee with a specific job to do and performance goals to be met. Ask him what he thinks the solutions to his performance problems are, and what ideas he has to improve his working relationship with Dawn. Then follow the same course with Dawn.

Once you've spoken your piece, and carefully listened to your two quarrelling staff members on an individual basis, your next move is to call Pat into your office for round two, and tell him some of Dawn's ideas for forging a better working relationship. You need to gauge his reaction to her suggestions. Then, bring Dawn in, and tell her some of Pat's ideas on rectifying their mutually destructive performances.

Round two is indispensable, because round three involves you refereeing Pat and Dawn in the same room, and tying together all that you've learned in your one-on-one discussions with them. You've heard their sides of the story; you've gotten their reactions to what each had to say about the others' suggestions about righting things; and now you, Pat, and Dawn are all coming together to agree upon solutions to a positive outcome to a very serious problem.

Traditional managerial ways are apt to skip rounds one and two of this process and call in their battling employees right from the start, telling them point-blank, “Work it out between yourselves … or else!” This is not the kind of employee self-sufficiency that we've been promoting throughout this book. Sure, in the end, the battling employees themselves will have to resolve to work out their differences, or nothing positive will happen. That much is certain. But you have a much better chance of securing positive outcomes if you talk with each employee individually, gather what information you can as to the causes of the personal or work-related problems leading to the diminished performances, and then proceed from there.

You must always be mindful of talking up to your employees and never down to them. As a coach, you are not in a role akin to a first-grade teacher. You're a manager of adults in an environment where overall performance matters as much to you as them.

When you simultaneously bring the fighting parties into your office (round three), it is only after you've heard from both sides (round one), and then gotten their reactions to the suggestions and ideas from the other (round two). Round three, then, is as productive as is possible because you completed your homework. This fully informed approach stands in stark contrast to what would be a free-for-all, a highly emotional one, if you chose to immediately call your combative employees into your office and read them the riot act.

To emphasize an important point: It's not your job to transform Pat and Dawn into the best of buddies (although that would be nice). It's your job and your responsibility to secure positive results in their performances. And if two employees' personal dislike for one another is getting in the way of achieving this, you've got to put a stop to it — or at the very least the outward manifestations of it that are negatively impacting on work performances.

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