How to Manage Employees Who Can't Stand Each Other

Two core principles of conflict and teams are: 1, conflict is inevitable, and 2, conflict around ideas is good, conflict around character or personality is bad.  

There are all kinds of tools you can use to solve a single conflict, but what if the conflict is ongoing?  What if it's not about one specific thing or situation, but the employees just don't like each other?  Just because it's not a huge crisis doesn't mean you can ignore it as the team leader.  In fact, the surest way to create a crisis is to let intrateam conflict fester for extended periods of time.  

Here are some strategies you can use that will not make your feuding employees BFFs but should at least make it possible for them to get their work done and for others to work with and around them.

Consider contributing factors.

Sometimes, employees can't stand each other for completely personal reasons.   It's possible, though, that there are some causal or at least contributing factors about the work environment.  For example:

  • Do the employees have the same standards of work?  
  • Does one of them think speed is most important and the other focuses on quality?  If so, that will make it hard for them to view each other's work as meeting standards.
  • Are their roles clear?  Are they constantly overlapping and stepping into each other's perceived areas of responsibility?  A quick test of this is to list projects on which they both work.  Is there a clear lead?  (If it's you and not one of them, that may be part of the problem.)
  • Are they clear about what the goals are?  Sometimes strong individual contributors get so focused on being great at their work that they lose sight of how that affects the larger team's success.  Make sure they are both crystal clear on what the team's goals are.
  • What are their expectations about communication and responsiveness?  If one person thinks everything is urgent and expects instant responses to e-mails and the other thinks that urgent items should involve a phone call and e-mails can wait, that is going to keep conflict going.

You may not be able to answer these questions yourself.  It might be worth bringing them up when you meet with the employees to see if one or more of these issues is exacerbating the problem.  The realistic goal here is not to make them best friends but to make it as easy as possible for them to work effectively with one another, so any contributing factors that you can mitigate will be well worth it.

Define the problem.

First, you need to get really clear on what the actual problem is.  People who are not friends are able to work together successfully all the time.  What's different about this situation?  How does the conflict show up?  You'll need to be clear about the impact (to show why it's a problem beyond just the people involved) and the behaviors that are the problem (because they have to change behavior even if they don't change their minds).

Questions to identify impact

  • What is the impact on the work?  Are there any examples of where the team was less successful because the feuding employees didn't work well together?
  • What is the impact on customers?   Have any of them become aware that things aren't totally smooth on the team?  
  • What is the impact on other external stakeholders?  Do other departments know about the conflict?  Is your boss aware? 
  • What is the impact on the team?  How does it affect how the members of the team work together (or not)?

Now that you're clear about the results of the problem, see if you can hone in on the actual behaviors that are the problem.  It may not be possible for these employees to ever like or fully respect each other, but what matters most is their behavior.

Questions to identify problematic behaviors

  • What have the employees said led to some of the negative impacts you listed above?
  • What nonverbal behaviors do the employees engage in, particularly in meetings or other group settings, that convey disrespect or conflict?
  • What have the employees not done or said that they should have?  For example, should they be consulting each other for input on certain processes?  Did one of them not mention a potential issue that could affect the other's work?

Based on your two lists, identify the most important effects the conflict is having on others or the work, and three to four specific behavior changes that will lessen those effects.  

Set expectations.

Once you're clear, you can set up the meeting with both employees.  Ideally, you should meet with both employees at the same time.  That probably stresses you out just to think of having the two of them in the same room on purpose, but it's important that they both know what the other one was told and that they get consistent messages from you.  Chances are, you are consciously or unconsciously more sympathetic to one of the parties, and what you don't want is the appearance of playing favorites.  If you have to meet with them separately, be sure to convey that the expectations are the same for both people.

In your meeting with the employees, you need to make it clear that the purpose of the meeting isn't to get into who said or did what in the past.    The purpose is to ensure that they work effectively together going forward.  As much as you can, keep the conversation focused on behavior and not people or personality.  A rough script you could use is:

I've noticed/heard about some patterns of behavior that indicate that the two of you are not working effectively together.  

Some of the specific behaviors include [list behaviors but keep them general to both parties if possible].  

Those behaviors are affecting [team results, customers, other stakeholders, other team members]  by [impact of conflict].

Going forward, I expect both of you to [list the 3-4 behavior changes].

Is there any reason why you won't be able to meet these expectations?

If you think there are mitigating factors, you can either ask variations of the questions above or make clarifying statements:

I also wanted to make sure that there aren't any miscommunications or misunderstandings about each other's roles and the expectations of both of you.

X is the lead for [projects].Y is the lead for [other projects].

On [collaborative projects], X needs to provide [input/assistance/etc.] to Y.

Everyone on the team needs to be making sure that we [team goal or success measure]. 

Is there anything else that has come up where things seem unclear regarding who's responsible for what or what the expectations are?  

If other things come up where there seem to be differing perspectives on these areas, please come to me.  

I know both of you are professionals and want to do what's best for the team, and I appreciate your having the maturity to look past personal differences to get the work done and help the team to be successful.

Hold them accountable.

Reinforce the behavior changes you requested.  After meetings, acknowledge any positive changes you saw, even if it was just the absence of eye-rolling.  If employees slip, be sure to call them out on it so they know you're serious.  The goal isn't to make them hug and pretend to like each other when they don't.  The goal is to ensure that the team is as successful as possible, and their behavior should support that goal.  If the behaviors persist, then there is a performance issue and you will need to move aggressively to address it, ideally with the support of your HR department.  If both employees a generally good performers, though, try this approach first and see if you can create a detente.   That may seem like a depressingly low goal, but it's a huge step up from open warfare, which is what you have or are about to have now, and it will provide a foundation for you to build on going forward.

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