When Colleagues Bicker

We like to think that employees are adults, that colleagues will all get along, and that everyone will focus on the organization’s goals and be united, but that is not the case in many work environments. While driving to a conference, my colleague Donna Cutting and I discussed how problematic it is when colleagues are petty or hostile with one another and how often that relationship must be mended before we can do even greater systemic work.

We realized that as HR consultants we have performed interventions when ongoing conflicts between colleagues, and sometimes customers, start to infiltrate other staff relationships or even the organization as a whole. After learning how similarly Donna and I approach these situations, I wanted to share the process with my readers. I hope that you don’t have petty or hostile situations to contend with, but the law of averages tells me that some of you do! 

Enlist the help of the most senior leader and get support for handling the problem.  Tell the senior leader, nicely, that he/she is contributing to the situation by allowing it to continue. Remind the senior leader that there’s no need to be harsh, but that doing nothing has allowed the problem to simmer and be contagious. 

Talk to the quarreling employees individually. This is often referred to as the Discovery Stage. Have each one answer the following questions:           

  • How are you contributing to the problem? This is important since it requires self reflection.
  • How does having this type of a conflict in your organization reflect poorly on you as a leader of the organization?
  • How is this situation impacting other staff members?
  • What would you do if a family came to you in this situation? Would you be more understanding if this was happening with someone close to you?  
  • Listen to their side longer than you may want or find necessary.
  • Tell them that this behavior will not be tolerated and that you are going to interview others.

Interview others. Some of these interviews may be short, BUT it puts all parties on notice that they need to be a part of the solution and not contribute to the problem. They will also see that you are there for them and involved. Ask the following questions: 

  • How are you contributing to the problem?     
  • How do you think this situation is impacting other staff members?
  • How does this situation reflect poorly on those involved? 
  • Tell them directly to stop any enabling behaviors and related gossip. 
  • Role model things they can say, like “I’m sorry you are feeling this way, but I think we need to all work together”, “Let’s give her some grace and latitude”, “We would be understanding if this were someone else,” or “This is hurting our group/our organization.”

Meet with each of the quarrelers individually again and say things like:         

  • “You are a role model.”
  • “Other staff members say that this is a problem and it is impacting them in this way …”
  • “Stop! Not only is it impacting others, it’s also impacting your career.”

Meet again with the employees together.  

This meeting will go fast (15 minutes). They likely will both be annoyed, embarrassed, angry or horrified to be there. You can have them write a simple document and sign it. If you uncover bigger issues, the most senior level person in the organization should attend.  

Good luck! And let me know if I can help you develop a process customized for your organization. In tricky employee relationships, ignorance is not bliss and effective leaders do intervene.

Related Posts
The Bat on the Table
October 31, 2017
Speak Not, Promote Not
January 28, 2020

Leave Your Comment

Your Comment*

Your Name*
Your Webpage