What to do when key employees clash

Question:

I manage a small company. Two of my key employees, both women, don’t play well with others — particularly each other. Although their departments need to work together, neither makes it easy for their employees to work with those in the other’s department. Both undercut each other in meetings. Neither asks for help from each other when it would save her time or offers help even when she sees it’s needed.

When I talk with each of them about their actions, both get defensive and complain about others, singling out each other as the “worst.” Since each occupies a critical role in the company, the strife between the two of them needs to be addressed, but I haven’t found the magic bullet.

Answer:

Tackle this problem individually and collectively.

First, hold individual meetings with each lone ranger. Ask each what her goals are and what she needs from others to succeed. From what you’ve said, each can easily answer these questions.

Then, ask each woman what she needs to do in terms of communications and interactions so that others will be willing to turn support and cooperate with her. They may find this question more difficult to answer. If either can’t, you can then say that she needs to start thinking in those terms and tell her to bring you at least one answer by the next day.

Next, bring the two of them in for a meeting and let them know that you need them to immediately improve their cooperation with each other. Tell them they don’t need to learn to appreciate each other’s personality, but they do need to agree on how they’ll interact.

Don’t end the meeting until you and they have outlined clear and specific operating agreements for how they’ll individually communicate and coordinate in the future and how they’ll guide those who work for them to supportively and cooperatively interact.

Finally, because this strife has affected your entire organization, you need to press the reset button for everyone. Bring everyone into a meeting and start with rules of engagement, such as “listening” and “no slam-dunk statements,” to govern how the discussion will be managed.

Let everyone know that for your organization to function productively, there needs to be true cooperation between all work units, and that it starts with understanding what each work unit needs from the others. Ask those in each work unit to outline their top priorities and what they depend on the other work units for in terms of communication and coordination. Then, ask those in each work unit to outline what they want the other work units to understand.

If any of the statements made surface issues that need to be resolved, mediate the discussion until there’s agreement on how things will work in the future. Document the highlights of this discussion so you can send out the meeting notes to everyone afterward. Close the meeting by asking for everyone’s full participation in making positive changes. Most importantly, follow up afterward to ensure your lone rangers “play well.”

©Dr. Lynne Curry is author of ”Beating the Workplace Bully” and ”Solutions” as well as owner of the management/HR consulting/training firm The Growth Company Inc. Follow her on Twitter @lynnecury10 or at http://www.bullywhisperer.com.

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