In this day and age, we all work in teams. There’s no getting away from it. Have you ever felt stuck in the middle when two of your team members can’t seem to get along?
This kind of clash often creates silos and workarounds as people try to avoid each other, or suboptimal solutions because team members haven’t engaged in the right level of collaboration. It can put leaders in awkward situations, especially if they dislike conflict or expect their teams to just work it out.
As a leader, what you say and do in situations like this speaks volumes. Remember that you are always in the invisible spotlight. If you allow the situation to continue, people start wondering if you really know how to lead others. If you’re too involved in resolving the issue, people may ask if you know how to help your team members develop and grow. Although there’s no cookie-cutter solution, let me share an example from one my executive coaching clients that may give you some insight.
Reset Expectations and Focus on Common Goals
My client, Joe, had two team members who just couldn't get along, let alone collaborate to deliver a project. Almost every week, one of them would go to Joe and complain about the other team member. Not only did this create a negative work environment, it also took far too much of Joe’s valuable time. And with Joe in the center of the communication, it was easy for his employees to avoid each other and engage in passive-aggressive behavior, but difficult for Joe to figure out what was really going on.
Joe knew that something had to change. So, we evaluated his role in the process. As long as he continued to meet individually with each team member, we knew this endless cycle would continue. To shift the dynamics, he decided to meet with both team members together to tackle the situation head on.
Joe acknowledged the differences in his team members’ working styles but also shared what he saw as their complementary strengths and experiences, and what they could learn from each other. He then clarified the criteria for a successful project, to refocus them on a common definition of success and the business results he expected them to deliver.
By the end of the meeting, he had cleared the air, refocused the team members on common goals, and shared how they could benefit from a better working relationship.
Let Go of Owning the Solution
Finally, we examined who really owned the resolution of the issues at hand. In this case it was Joe, not his employees. Resisting the temptation to take over, he gave ownership of the solution back to them. He let them know that he expected them to work together, and when and how to engage him if they needed his support and guidance. In other words, he expected them to make a good faith effort to first resolve the issues themselves. He and HR were additional resources.
This week, think about whether any tension is brewing within your team. What can you do to get your team members back to a more constructive place? Do you need to evaluate your role, reset expectations, communicate shared goals, or shift ownership of the solution? Sometimes people simply need to know that, as their boss, you’ve noticed the problem and something has to change.
You can find more advice like this in the booklet "Building a Stronger a Team," part of my Leadership EDGE SeriesSM.
P.S. Know another leader who's grappling with a team conflict? Forward this article as a resource.