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Managing Hostility in your Team

One of the joys of running your small business is dealing with your staff.

I’m not being sarcastic – I really do mean that dealing with your staff is a joy, because if you have chosen well, they are hard-working, more often loyal than not, and they bring a different dimension to work. They are a relief during the day when you can talk football or the latest instalment of the soap opera, they are also a source of support when a business problem means you need hands to the wheel or just moral support.

If they are none of the above, perhaps you didn’t choose well and need to look again.

Of course there is also the other side. You have a responsibility to your staff, they sometimes don’t work the way you work and it can be irritating, they sometimes disagree.

But these are not the worst engagements with your staff (and I’m talking good staff whom you do want to retain). The worst engagements are when two of them have a dispute.

When the relationship between two of them rises to the point of hostility, how do you manage the situation and keep the team on track?

I am not a psychologist or a professional mediator, but I have been through a lot of internal staff disputes and I find that a manager taking the responsibility to help two of his or her good team members resolve their issues with each other can really help the situation. As well, remember, the building of a team is one of a manager’s fundamental responsibilities.

I find a manager taking up the leadership reins can follow a sensitive plan to resolve disputes.

First, get your own head straight about how you feel. Do not meet with them while you are in a state of frustration about their behaviour, or you have made some pre-assumptions and judgements. You will be trying to help, not referee, and you cannot help if you display your own frustration during the process, or side with one or the other.
Before you see them, consider if their dispute might arise from some sort of procedural clash or systems issue. Perhaps their defined roles are not clear enough and your systems don’t make clear who does what so they consistently tread on each others’ toes. Do their jobs and tasks require collaboration and does the system cater for that, measure it even? Do the procedures and their responsibilities help them collaborate or are they set up to fail?
Once you have those basic facts with you, meet with them individually.
Your task here is to discover clues as to why the dispute arose, and further, how those issues made their relationship deteriorate.

Be very open and empathetic, yet truthful with them. Don’t be afraid of pointing out their bad behaviour, but doing so to discover why that behaviour is manifesting. For example, openly and honestly ask: “I notice that when she prepared the marketing proposal, your criticisms were quite personal rather than about the merits of the marketing initiatives – did you have concerns about her presentation?”

Make sure that your comments end with an open question that encourages them to expand on how they feel. As they discuss with you, use questions like “why does that worry you?” or “and what do you think might result if that happened?”

These discussions are aimed at your finding the root cause behind emotions of fear or envy, low self-esteem and other anxieties. Disputes that result in hostility are rarely about work and almost always about deep emotional fear and anxiety about their position. However, be prepared to redirect their comments that question assumptions, for example: “Although you say that he is intentionally making you look bad in front of customers, we don’t really know why he was behaving that way.”

Reflect on the answers to your questions and then propose your reflection to them. If you believe you have come across a root cause, ask them, “You have the feeling that she is being promoted over you – are you worried about your job?” If your understanding is confirmed, see if you can reframe the position with the other person’s stance redefined, such as “She probably believes that she’s just doing her job and got recognised for it, how do you think she would feel if you were challenging her role?”

Once you have had your discussions with both, reached an understanding with each about where their emotions lay, what the root causes might be, and how their behaviours affect the other, bring the two together to have a series of conversations. Introduce the situation as you see it, what the facts are as opposed to the assumptions each have made, and what common ground exists, then allow them to have a conversation. Interrupt as little as possible, but be ready to step in if they start to use bad behaviour or bring in untested assumptions about each other – remind them of facts and common ground.
Step in also where you feel something is being left unspoken: “When you were speaking with me, you told me about how you felt when he turns his back on you, would you like to explain that?”
If the situation is of highly intense hostility, the conversations may take a while to work through the issues. Be prepared to take small steps and have a series of conversations. In between, don’t treat them with kid gloves, they are adults, but do try to reinforce facts and procedural matters. For example ensure their responsibilities in any projects are clearly defined so as not to worsen the situation.

As I said at the beginning, working with your team can be a joy especially if they are great team members who bring value to the team and the business. Helping these team members get over hostility and work together for the benefit of the group is a great investment of your time as manager and leader.

I’d love to hear what you think, and whether you’ve handled a situation like that before.

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