What to do When Employees Just Don't Get Along

By Dave Willmer

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Reduced budgets, reduced workforces and reduced resources often equate to reduced patience on the part of employees. In an uncertain or stressful business environment, it’s not uncommon to see greater staff conflict. Poor working relationships not only deplete morale but also lead to a decline in productivity—the last thing you need when you are trying to keep up with a full plate of IT demands.

Here are some strategies for addressing employee conflicts and preventing future issues from arising:

Start every team project by clearly outlining individual roles. Who is in charge of the project? What tasks must be completed, and who is responsible for each one? Even if it seems obvious that certain people with specific expertise will handle particular aspects of an initiative, it’s always wise to spell it out. For instance, “While John is recommending new financial software options for the accounting department, ultimately, the choice will be made by Jane in accounting. However, John, you will lead the implementation and training once a selection has been made.”

A frequent source of problems in the workplace is territorial disputes where people believe others are getting involved with decision making in areas in which they shouldn’t. By clarifying authority from the beginning, you can help to minimize the potential for conflict as a project progresses.

Also consider opportunities to cross-train employees. Staff members who shadow their colleagues in other roles develop a much better understanding of the daily responsibilities, pressures and priorities of different positions in the company. This can’t help but improve teamwork and may also lead to better solutions. For example, by having John pair with Jane, he might realize the accounting department has very little free time and, as a result, recommend an out-of-the-box software product that requires little training or customization.

Despite your best efforts, interpersonal disagreements will arise. Once you are aware of a problem aim for a resolution as quickly as possible. Even if it’s clear that one party is in the wrong, try to maintain a neutral position initially to help calm emotions. As you gather information from both sides, make sure that generalities made by employees, like “She just won’t listen” or “He is so condescending,” are backed up with specific examples.

It is equally important to consider the way you manage your response. While it’s tempting to want to fix the situation yourself, try to encourage employees to develop the solution. For example, you might say, “How do you feel we should resolve this problem?” Learning to better manage working relationships can be a valuable skill for your staff to master, and you’re empowering them to take the lead in finding a compromise.

At the same time, be careful about letting individuals who are overly emotional or hostile have too much involvement in the problem solving. Interpersonal conflicts may clue you in to performance issues, such as an inflexible mind-set or poor attitude. You may need to shift a discussion about how to resolve a clash of personalities into a frank talk with an employee about areas in which he or she can improve.

Regardless of how a conflict is handled, there should be a time line for changes. The parties involved should have a list of action items and deadlines for achieving new objectives.

The Upside

Sometimes, there is an upside to conflict. If the argument is not about personal issues but rather about substantive problems, the end result may be positive change that wouldn’t have come about if there hadn’t been a dispute. For instance, Anne might complain that Bob takes too long to sign off on critical technology purchase orders, while Bob believes Anne has unrealistic expectations given his workload. The quarrel may highlight the need for a backup authority who can authorize purchase orders when Bob is overloaded with other priorities.

One of the keys to success in conflict management is following up. It is easy for employees to revert to old habits and recreate the same problems. Check in periodically to make sure minor issues are addressed before they become larger concerns again. Additionally, find out if anticipated changes have been completed. For instance, did Bob identify and train a backup to approve purchase orders when his schedule is full? Make sure that action items and deadlines agreed upon earlier are achieved.

Do your part to foster better working relationships going forward by providing opportunities for people to get to know one another better. Monthly birthday celebrations and extra time to talk before staff meetings are a couple of easy ways to reinforce camaraderie.

Dave Willmer is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of IT professionals for initiatives ranging from e-business development and multi-platform systems integration to network security and technical support. The company has more than 100 locations worldwide.