Q and A: Try to mend office feud before firing combatants
QUESTION: I have two team members who just can't get along. Their animosity is causing problems for the group, and I'm thinking one needs to move on for the good of the whole. Each has specific skills that we need. How do I begin to decide who go...
QUESTION: I have two team members who just can't get along. Their animosity is causing problems for the group, and I'm thinking one needs to move on for the good of the whole. Each has specific skills that we need. How do I begin to decide who goes and who stays?
ANSWER: The consequences of their failure to work together need to be made clear, and then they need one last chance. At the same time, consider whether you're better off replacing both -- it's often easier to replace skills than to repair attitude.
To manage this situation, remain calm and keep emotion out of it. If this isn't easy for you, take the time to notice your feelings -- anger, frustration or resentment -- and get them under control.
Then assess the situation as you would if you were outside the team. Map out the team dynamics, noting how the problem employees interact with the team. Pay attention to the conflict triggers, and be more specific about the effects on the team as a whole.
What would success look like for each of the combatants? If they are struggling for dominance, what is it that they want? What aspects, if any, are reasonable, and what do they need to let go of?
Finally, determine whether you've managed the situation as fully as you should have. Many managers avoid the conflict involved in addressing this type of situation, letting it escalate out of control.
The most important step you can take is to sit down with the two employees and clearly lay out the consequences of their collective behavior. In order to be effective in this conversation, plan it out, using three steps.
--Behavior. "The two of you are consistently disagreeing and sabotaging each other's work (or whatever the specifics are.)"
--Outcome. "As a result, other team members feel very uncomfortable and are having to pick up extra work."
--Consequence. "If this doesn't change, I will have to let you go in the interest of the team's well-being."
Be sure you aren't making idle threats by having your boss and your HR group buy in to the plan, and be ready to follow whatever internal processes you have for documenting performance issues.
Ideally, one or both will be motivated to change, and you need to be ready to help them. If feasible, assign work that gives them some space from each other, line up coaches or mentors for them, and have regular conversations to mediate and defuse the tensions between them.
If the situation doesn't improve, then it's time to decide which employee needs to go. Part will be skills; one person might be harder to replace than the other. Part will be attitude -- if one is more "me first" and has been more resistant to working together, that should help make your decision. And if you think the situation could recur if either is kept, consider replacing both.
The groundwork of working through the situation will provide valuable direction should a change be needed, and may be what it takes to help these troublesome employees become valuable contributors.