Employees don't like each other? How to handle it

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Sometimes co-workers just don’t get along.

Maybe it’s just a small, temporary issue, perhaps tied to a stressful project. Or maybe it’s much more serious, like harassment or bullying.

Whatever it is, if two people on your team are in conflict with each other, they can inject tension into the lives of their fellow employees and managers alike. In fact, a study that Provident is unveiling next week suggests employee confrontations are a fairly common problem at Canadian companies. Stay tuned for more.

Many of us spend more time with work colleagues than we do with our families, so having healthy workplace relationships is important to our overall well-being.

So how do you fix things when they go awry, and turn an office enmity into something more positive?

For starters, if you’re a leader, you need to understand the nature of the conflict. Ensure, first and foremost, that you don’t have a serious workplace harassment situation on your hands, and that no one’s safety is at risk. Talk to the parties at hand in a neutral manner. Ask questions. Gauge reactions. Hear the employees out; people who are upset want to be heard. But don’t take sides.

And ask yourself some tough questions, too: Am I playing favourites? Am I contributing to the tension? And more broadly: Are there underlying circumstances that may be driving some of the conflict? Is the workload too intense, are the deadlines too tight, and are people operating in a high-stress environment? If so, take measures to be more realistic about expectations. If you’re heaping work on people at the last minute, it’s only natural they might turn on one another -- or on you.

At the same time, you also want your employees to be independent and to work things out among themselves. You’re not a parent or a psychologist. If team leaders get pulled into the conflict every time there’s a minor dispute, and react each time to the complaints, they could heighten the drama and encourage its escalation.

Never, ever badmouth one employee to another. Instead, provide ways for both parties to communicate and work things out in as neutral a way as possible. Make sure they know you cannot fix the problem for them, and that you won’t be cajoled into agreeing with them … instead, give them the tools to resolve their differences themselves. Facilitate discussion, encourage a respectful airing of grievances, but don’t participate in it unless the situation becomes urgent.

Focus on the problems, not the people. What’s really at the heart of the disagreement? Just differing work styles? A dispute about the best way to get the work done? Creative differences? If so, encourage the employees to brainstorm on best practices and meet halfway.

Another key point: Ensure your managers are trained and coached by HR experts on how to handle conflict. Poorly trained or incompetent team leaders can make the situation much worse, cause morale to erode and cause high staff turnover. If a division is bleeding staff, well: Houston, we have a problem. Don’t bury your head in the sand about a bad manager.

Indeed, nip the situation in the bud as you see it starting. These types of simmering conflicts rarely improve, and if left to boil over, they could scald your entire team, division or company. Nonetheless, sometimes, people simply don’t really like each other much, and have to agree to disagree. Make clear that’s an acceptable resolution to any ongoing conflict. But insist, above all else, that they treat each other respectfully.

In the end, the smartest thing to do is lead by example. Life is difficult. People can be annoying. We don’t all have to like each other, and no workplace is perfect. But a healthy workplace culture starts at the top. By being calm, reasonable, respectful, approachable, scrupulous and honest, there’s a good chance your employees or team members will emulate your integrity.