What Can a Manager Do When Employees Won't Get Along?

Coaching, intervention, and mediation are musts for workplace harmony

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Managers face a sticky problem when confronted with two adults in the same office who won't get along. The tension between the two employees affects their work as well as the work of others in close proximity to their conflict. Employees become stressed because just coming into the office feels uncomfortable. 

For managers, it is important to intervene early. In extreme examples, the conflict might be due to one employee who is a creating a problem, but most often it is a matter of having two personalities that don't mesh well together. The sooner a solution is reached, the sooner both employees will be happy to be able to move on—and the sooner their coworkers will be relieved to feel the easing of tensions in the office.

What Managers Can Do

Identifying the problem is perhaps the most important step. To do that, supervisors need to be involved and in touch with the day-to-day activities in the workplace, and when there are clues that a problem might exist, they need to step in and address the problem. Letting the problems fester by hoping they will pass will simply make matters worse.

Some potential underlying reasons for conflict might include:

  • An employee not pulling her weight
  • An employee gossiping about another employee
  • Unfair pay structures that employees know about
  • Jealousy
  • Clashing personalities
  • High-stress levels in the workplace
  • Favoritism of one over the other by the boss
  • Perceived inequity in job titles

Identifying the problem sometimes can require outside help. As a manager, you should bring in someone from human resources to help with this. HR often can look at things from an outside viewpoint and spot what you can't see close up.

Once you have a good idea what the problem is, sit down with the source or sources of the conflict. It's rarely black and white, and more than one person typically is involved. At the beginning, it's a good idea to meet with employees one on one, and someone from HR also should be in the meeting to help ease any tension.

How to Address the Problem With the Employees Who Won't Get Along

Consider an example where employees Jane and Heidi do not get along. Here's how your conversation with Jane might go:

Manager: Jane, I've noticed that there's tension between you and Heidi. Can you tell me what is going on there?

Jane: Heidi is always criticizing me and jumping in on my clients.

Manager: I will talk to Heidi about that. I've also noticed that you leave work until the last minute, which may explain why Heidi is jumping in so often. I'll stop Heidi from giving you a difficult time and you can bump up your timelines so there isn't any risk of missing a deadline. Would you like help to develop a revised timeline?

And here's how you can begin the needed discussion with Heidi:

Manager: Heidi, I've noticed that there is tension between you and Jane. Can you tell me what's going on there?

Heidi: Jane is such a slacker. I'm always having to do her work.

Manager: Why?

Heidi: Because if I don't do the work, the work won't get done.

Manager: It's my job to ensure that Jane's work does get done—not yours. I hereby relieve you of the obligation to worry about Jane's workload. If I feel Jane needs your help, I'll contact you. Otherwise, focus on your own clients and let Jane focus on hers. If you see a train wreck about to happen, come to me before going to Jane, and I'll handle it.

Follow-up With the Employees Who Won't Get Along

After identifying a problem, addressing it with employees, and finding a solution, you need to following through. This sometimes is the most difficult part.

If you don't follow up with Jane to make sure that she's keeping to the new timelines and you don't correct Heidi every time that she tries to jump in, you won't solve the problem. They'll still hate each other and they'll hate you, too, because they'll see your intervention as worthless. If you are going to solve a problem, you need to do the work to carry it through.

Managers often struggle with coming up with solutions to the problem of bickering employees, but if they simply identify the underlying behavior issue, address it, and then follow up to solve it, they can be successful.

Most of the time, employees are allowing their emotions to override their professionalism. Your intervention as a coach and guide can help them move past the emotional aspects into solving the real, existing problem. Then, your employees will get along and you can create the harmonious environment at work that you want, too.

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Suzanne Lucas is a freelance journalist specializing in Human Resources. Suzanne's work has been featured on notes publications including Forbes, CBS, Business Insider and Yahoo.