Management Challenge #15: When There Is Conflict on Your Team

Excerpt from “The 27 Challenges Managers Face: Step-by-Step Solutions to (Nearly) All of Your Management Problems” (Jossey-Bass, the Wiley imprint in San Francisco, September 2014).

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. This is among the most common and vexing challenges managers face. Negative social dynamics at work—interpersonal conflict among coworkers—cause stress; diminish cooperation; and have a measurable impact on productivity, quality, morale, and turnover.

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?”

Interpersonal conflict in the workplace only has room to flower in a relative leadership vacuum.

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. Take a look at your use of team meetings and one-on-ones to make sure you are practicing the fundamentals regularly and consistently.

If you get back to practicing the fundamentals with discipline, you will 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. And the more focused everyone is on the work they have in common, the more likely they are to cooperate. Most of the intramural conflicts will fall away under your strong, highly engaged leadership. When conflicts occur, you will be in a better position to evaluate and make appropriate decisions.

If you find lingering conflicts on your team, even after you’ve filled the leadership vacuum, 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. That means you need to be sufficiently engaged that you can evaluate the situation. Either you make a decision 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.

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. The real nature of the problem with cliques and ringleaders is that they constitute a parallel power structure, chain of command, and system of communication. That creates confusion and dissent, at best. You cannot allow that to continue.

You have two choices when it comes to cliques/ringleaders: either co-opt the parallel power structure or 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, that is simply a zero-tolerance issue. If anybody in the workplace is abusive to anyone else in any way—menacing, threatening, or even suggesting violent words or actions—this is a matter of public safety. As a manager, you have a responsibility to keep everybody safe in that workplace. Any behavior like that must be removed from the workplace immediately—period.

Excerpt from “The 27 Challenges Managers Face: Step-by-Step Solutions to (Nearly) All of Your Management Problems” released by Jossey-Bass, the Wiley imprint in San Francisco (September 2014; $23.95). For more information, visit http://rainmakerthinking.com/books-videos/27-challenges-mangers-face-step-step-solutions-nearly-management-problems/

Based in New Haven, CT, Bruce Tulgan is a leading expert on young people in the workplace. He is an advisor to business leaders all over the world, the author or coauthor of numerous books, including the classic, “Managing Generation X” (1995); best-seller “It’s Okay to Be the Boss” (2007); “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy’ (2009); and “The 27 Challenges Managers Face” (2014). Since founding management training firm RainmakerThinking in 1993, he has been a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. Follow him on twitter @brucetulgan. He can be reached at brucet@rainmakerthinking.com.

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