Personality clash tests merger

Dear Joan:
Could you shed some light on the best way to handle personality clashes in the office? One of my managers has asked me for an approach for handling two of his employees who have been at odds for months. It is beginning to get disruptive for the rest of the employees-so much so that one of the groups complained to me (my manager doesn't know about this).

Would you recommend that he calls them both in and "lay down the law"? Some words of advice please.

The interesting thing about clashes in the workplace is that they are a lot like those you have at home. By that I mean they tend to be caused by a conflict in roles, responsibilities and goals-not personalities. We complain about whose job it is to cook dinner or argue about how late our teenager can stay out. We rarely blame it on personality.

At work, however, we are quick to point to a "personality conflict." Although, occasionally, co-workers might hate each other on site, most of the time I think this label is inaccurate. Instead of looking at the conflicts caused by work situations, we are too ready to label people "difficult to get along with."

Beware of managers who use this phrase too easily. In fact, if a manager always seems to have more political and personality problems than his peers, become suspicious of a weak boss who doesn't know how to structure work and clarify responsibilities. Start sniffing around for the possibility of favoritism. Nothing brings out conflicts between peers like the fear of one person gaining an unfair advantage at the other's expense.

I'm not suggesting your manager is part of the problem, only that it is a possibility that should be considered. The fact that a person has complained to you about it suggests that he or she lacks confidence that the manager will do anything about it. This is a bad sign. Usually employees won't resort to going over their boss's head unless all attempts to work through the boss have failed.

If you have promised anonymity to this employee, don't betray that trust, however, in the future ask the complainer what steps they have taken with their immediate boss. Explain that you aren't comfortable discussing the situation until they have pursued it with their manager. If you allow yourself to become the complaint department and chief decider, you will undercut the managers who report to you and diminish their effectiveness as leaders.

Suggest to this manager that something in the work may be the problem and he needs to investigate that possibility first. To do this he can call each person in separately and point out that the conflict has begun to get in the way of the work. He shouldn't use the complaints of others against either one; first hand observation is best. In other words, saying, "Jackie says so-and-so..." will only trigger a defensive, get-even mentality. It's better to say, "I've noticed that...."

Coach your manager to stop them if they begin to list the evils of the other person. Instead, he can say, "Let's leave personalities out of this. Tell me how their behavior gets in the way of the work." He should write down the specific things that are relevant. Under no circumstances should he take sides at this point.

He needs to explain that he will be doing this with both parties and will expect them to participate in coming up with workable solutions. He could also ask each of them, "What one thing would improve the situation that you would be willing to try?" This puts responsibility for solving the problem on their shoulders and stops the mud slinging. He should also ask, "What could I do that would help the situation?"

If it doesn't appear to be a problem of conflicting roles, responsibilities or goals, your manager can feel confident saying, "You don't have to like each other but you do have to work together to get the job done. This is getting in the way and must end or it will be reflected on both of your performance reviews. Moving up in any company has a lot to do with how well you can adjust to different styles and personalities, so I hope you won’t let this get in your way for later opportunities."

Stay close to your manager on this one. It's likely to teach you both a little about his management ability and your skill as a coach. Conflicts like this can be enormously disruptive. If he can put an end to it, his employees will thank him and you both will win.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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