“Leave your drama at the door when you come to work. Come in, do your job and go home.”
Does that management style sound familiar? I call it the ostrich approach to leadership.
Telling employees to leave their personal feelings at the door to come in and get work done has the same effect as burying your head in the sand and pretending the building isn’t on fire all around you. It isn’t effective.
Employees are human. Humans have problems. We have problems with our families. We have problems with our coworkers. We have problems with just about everything at one point or another. But many leaders expect their employees to compartmentalize life and turn their feelings off when they walk in the door to work. This is an especially common approach when it involves how employees feel about each other. Workplace conflict is easy to ignore, but ignoring it only makes it worse.
Here is a common scenario: Sam and Pat report to Sue. Sam goes to Sue’s office and tells her that Pat has been late 10 times in a row. Every day Sam and Pat go to Sue with one or more complaints about the other. Sue is frustrated and doesn’t have time to deal with petty disputes. She tells both Sam and Pat that they don’t have to like each other, but they need to focus on their jobs and get their work done. Period.
Sam and Pat might focus on work for a little while, but they will be right back in Sue’s office. Conflict is a problem. Problems need to be solved. If a machine on the manufacturing line breaks, we spare no expense to fix it. If we don’t fix it, the product can’t be produced. But if an employee relationship breaks, we tell people to get over it. And then we’re surprised when someone quits or posts a terrible, anonymous review on corporate feedback websites such as GlassDoor. Really?
Leaders have an obligation to step in and work through workplace conflict. It’s about more than telling people to stop. It’s about trying to understand the root of the problem. For example, if Sam is frustrated that Pat is habitually late, the problem might not even be with Pat. The problem might be with Sue, because Sue might be treating Pat differently than Sam or other team members when it comes to attendance.
The next time employee relationships are broken, choose to fix them. Consider one or more of these options:
Ask employees individually why they feel so strongly or why they feel the way they do in the first place. Be sure each employee has an opportunity to be heard.
Consider bringing employees together in a room with you, a member of the human resources team or an independent third party (internal or external to the company) to mediate a problem-solving session.
If the problem is widespread, consider a culture survey, allowing employees to air grievances anonymously. Be prepared to act on the survey outcomes, or your employees will be even more upset.
No matter which path you choose, be sure to communicate outcomes. Follow-up is equally as important as the initial intervention. Employees need to understand the entire scenario, from beginning to end. Get each employee’s commitment to the path forward. Their future behavior should be measured against their commitment. It might not be perfect, but it should improve. If it doesn’t, it becomes a performance-management issue that will likely lead to disciplinary action.
When conflict between coworkers remains unaddressed, it’s no longer just an employee problem. It’s a leadership problem. Leaders who don’t act won’t stay in those leadership positions very long.
A former associate general counsel for The Hershey Co., Claudia Williams is founder of The Human Zone, a firm focused on leadership development and employee engagement. She can be reached at www.humanzonebiz.com.