When there is Conflict Between, and Among, Individuals on Your Team (By Bruce Tulgan)
Let’s face it: Sometimes people just don’t like each other. I hear from managers every day struggling to deal with interpersonal conflict between and among employees on their teams.
If there is a high level of interpersonal conflict on your team, the first thing you need to do is ask yourself, “Why do my direct-reports have enough time on their hands at work, not to mention brain space, to focus on interpersonal conflicts with each other?”
If you don’t have clear, regularly enforced standard operating procedures, you leave room for clashes of style and preference. If you don’t have good performance management in place, there will be more rivalry for attention, resources, recognition, and reward. If you are not spelling out expectations and tracking performance, employees blame each other for problems that occur and resent each other because there is no real accountability.
If you are the leader, you need to fill the leadership vacuum. That does not mean putting your foot down. It means getting everybody more focused on doing all that work they have in common, so they won’t have as much energy to focus on conflicts. You don’t need a big moment. You need a good process to suck the oxygen right out of most conflicts. Make sure every individual is highly focused every day on getting lots of work done very well, very fast. Remind everybody repeatedly about the broad performance standards, including the standards for good professional communication, cooperation, and mutual support.
When you are coaching employees every day, spelling out expectations, and tracking performance every step of the way, employees are less likely to worry about each other and more likely to worry about getting their own work done.
If you still find lingering conflicts on your team, chances are you are fighting a conflict that has had too much time and space to fester and grow. Perhaps it’s an unresolved personality clash that has left ill-will. Or maybe cliques have formed, ringleaders have emerged, or even bullies. You need to identify the problem and treat it aggressively. Beware: Surgical removal of the “tumor” may be required if aggressive treatment does not swiftly render it benign.
When there is ill-will between specific colleagues, you need to confront the situation directly. You cannot be the judge and jury for every argument between employees. But who else is going to adjudicate? For past “wrongs,” the only question is: What can/should be done now? You are going to have to hear out both parties and then make a judgment call. Either you make a decision that everybody needs to live with, or else the issue remains in status quo, and that too is a decision. In any case, everybody needs to live with the decision and agree to move on.
Going forward, you have another decision to make: Will you make an effort to keep them apart in the future, working on different projects, in different areas, or on different shifts? Or will they need to be able to work together? If it’s the latter, then they need to establish a regular ongoing one-on-one dialogue with each other and agree on ground rules for how they are going to work together in a cooperative and professional manner.
If certain employees are especially prone to conflicts, in repeated instances, you need to aggressively coach the conflict-prone employee on avoiding conflict and interacting in more positive ways. Tell them what to say and how to say it so that they can engage in conflict-free interactions. Spell it out. Break it down. Follow-up.
When it comes to cliques, remember, you rarely find cliques without ringleaders. Often cliques form around competing ringleaders. Sometimes ringleaders emerge from within a clique. But they almost always go together.
You have two choices when it comes to cliques/ringleaders: Either co-opt the parallel power structure or else break it up. Co-opting means turning the clique into a team and the ringleader into a deputy. You have to ask yourself: Is the ringleader demonstrating natural leadership ability and having a positive impact? Does the clique make sense as a team? If the answer to both questions is “yes” then maybe deputizing the ringleader as captain of team-clique is a good idea. Otherwise, you need to break up the parallel power structure: Remove the bad apples, reassign key players, and/or impose a strong chain of command that displaces the ringleader and disrupts the clique.
When it comes to bullying in the workplace, if anybody in the workplace is abusive to anyone else in any way— menacing, threatening, or even suggesting violent words or actions — you have a responsibility to keep everybody safe by removing the abuser from the workplace immediately — period.
Bruce Tulgan is a speaker and the author of numerous books including the best seller It’s Okay to Be the Boss (2007), the classic, Managing Generation X (1995), as well as It’s Okay to Manage Your Boss (2010), The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014), and Bridging the Soft Skills Gap: How to Teach the Missing Basics to Today’s Young Talent (2015). This article is an excerpt from Tulgan’s book, The 27 Challenges Managers Face.
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