Story provided by HBR –
Managing people is never easy, but when the animosity between two of your direct reports escalates to the level of hatred, how do you minimize the drama and keep your team on track? Before you call for a professional mediator, remember that this is a fundamental part of your job as a manager. If you can get to the root of your employees’ fear, you can help them rebuild their relationship. And if you do it the right way, the shared vulnerability will start to foster trust in place of hate. Try the following approach to get at the root of the problem and resolve the conflict once and for all:
Before addressing the interpersonal tension between your two direct reports, it’s important to ensure the conflict isn’t stemming from more systemic issues. First, ensure that your direct reports have clarity about their roles, a solid understanding of what is expected of them, and a set of measures and rewards that promote collaboration rather than competition. Make sure their relationship is set up for success.
Then, before you talk to them, spend a moment thinking about your own frustration with and judgments about them. If you are fed up and unwilling or unable to be empathetic, you won’t be in a position to help. Hatred is the product of miscommunication, misunderstanding, and fear — empathy can dissolve it. Start with the positive assumption that your direct reports are good people experiencing something stressful. Compose yourself, or risk provoking even more anxiety in the people you are trying to calm down.
When you are ready, relentlessly provide feedback whenever you see symptoms of the poor relationship. For example: “When Giselle spoke, you rolled your eyes. For me, that demonstrated a lack of professional maturity. What caused your reaction to what Giselle was saying?”
Take every opportunity to call out bad behavior and don’t hesitate to provide feedback on the absence of behavior either, as in: “I noticed that you didn’t say anything during Giselle’s presentation. What was going on for you?” In each case, ensure that your feedback ends with an open-ended question that gets the person talking.
Use the answers to your questions to uncover clues about the root causes of the animosity. Remember, for feelings as strong as hatred to be triggered, the root causes are probably very close to home. Shed light on issues of low self-esteem, anxiety about change, or fear of losing control. Try questions such as: “What worries you?” “How do you see this playing out?” or “How do you experience it when she does that?” Let each answer show you the path to the next question. You are attempting to get beneath the person’s biased perceptions of situations and down into their motives and beliefs. That’s where the emotion is coming from.
As you listen closely to the answers, it is critical to redirect comments that include assumptions about what the other person is thinking or feeling. For example, if he says “she is trying to destroy my credibility,” reframe the idea as “we don’t know Giselle’s motive; I am interested in how her behavior is being interpreted by you. How do you feel when she disagrees with you in front of the team?”
Reflect back what you hear and start to make some hypotheses about what might be going on.“I get the sense that when Giselle was promoted two levels in three years, you started to think about your own career progression. Is that fair?” “Tell me more about what you’re thinking.” The objective is to make sure each individual understands how their thoughts and feelings affect their perceptions of the other.
Encourage each person to consider the possibility that the other is trying to cope in the best way they know how. Ask questions that help them think about the situation differently. “How do you think Giselle felt when she joined a team of people who are older and more experienced than her?” “How might you help Giselle get her point across so that she doesn’t need to be so assertive?”
Once you have helped each individual understand his or her half of the relationship, you can bring the two together to have a conversation. “I’ve been speaking with each of you about my concerns over your strained relationship. I think you’re ready to talk to one another.” Interject as little as possible in the conversation, but where you know there is something that’s not being said, provide a gentle nudge: “Giselle, we talked about how you experience it when Bob disengages in a meeting…” This process might take several conversations—stick with it.
The advantage of making this level of investment is that it will go a long way toward fixing the problem once and for all—once you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes, it’s very unlikely you will still feel animosity. Even more importantly, it will be some of the best leadership development the two individuals have ever received. You will have helped them grow up, gain some insight into themselves, and forge a relationship that benefits everyone. Their new found accountability for relationships will serve them well throughout their careers.