Dealing with employees who don’t get along or who have outright fallen out with each other is one of the most irritating and time-consuming tasks managers have to deal with.
Strained relationships in the office don’t just cause a bad atmosphere, they can have a real impact on productivity and performance. Employees don’t have the conversations they need to because they are worried about upsetting a colleague ‘yet again’. Team meetings are tense, irritable affairs where people play games and seek to undermine their colleagues. At worst – and if not addressed – disputes between peers can escalate into outright aggression with shouting matches in the office.
Managers have to deal with these difficult scenarios – but sometimes they can unwittingly be the cause. The way they organise work and manage the team can inadvertently cause rifts and bad feelings between colleagues.
So what are the factors that lead to strained working relationships – and how can managers make sure they are not exacerbating the situation?
1. People don’t understand each other’s roles
“She’s always out of the office, I never know where she is.”
“Why does he get all the interesting work while we’re left to deal with the dross?”
“I’m the only person who seems to be making an effort around here.”
Misunderstandings about colleagues’ roles are at the root of many difficult workplace relationships. If people don’t know what their peer’s priorities are, or what they are expected to deliver, they may come to the conclusion they are slacking or doing something they are not supposed to. Jealousy and resentment very quickly arise and before you know it, you’ve got a dysfunctional team. Managers need to make sure team members are clear about their own roles, but also understand the boundaries of other people’s jobs and what they are trying to achieve. If they have the bigger picture and can see how everyone fits in, they are more likely to collaborate and support each other.
2. Managers have their favourites
It’s human nature for managers to have their ‘favourites’. Maybe they rate some employees higher than others or naturally have a greater affinity with particular people. Sometimes, this plays out unconsciously in the ways teams are managed. Certain people always get the plum assignments, are first in line for training or are regularly singled out for praise. They are allowed to work flexibly whenever they want, and their holiday requests are always granted. Employees are not daft. They know if they are not one of the ‘chosen’ ones and will feel overlooked and undervalued. Resentment at unfair treatment – whether real or perceived – bubbles up and begins to cause problems between colleagues. Managers need to take a look in the mirror and ensure they are not inadvertently causing discord in the team by favouring particular employees.
3. The business doesn’t value collaboration
Is the work environment you are creating as a manager competitive or collaborative? Competition does, of course, have its place. Some disciplines, such as sales, thrive on setting employees up against one other in order to drive greater performance. You would be surprised, however, how many strategies and processes unwittingly set people up to compete when they could achieve better results through collaboration.
If people feel they need compete against peers, they will pursue their own agenda and may even actively try to undermine or even sabotage the work of their colleagues. Taking a more collaborative approach and making it clear employees should be supporting each other will result in improved performance, not to mention a more harmonious environment.
4. Colleagues genuinely don’t like each other
It’s a fact of life that some people just don’t like each other. Colleagues find each other’s habits irritating, are wound up by their general approach or don’t get each other’s sense of humour. In life, we can generally avoid the people we don’t like. At work, we are often forced to spend huge amounts of time in each other’s company. As a manager, you have to accept that however hard you try, there may be people in your team who are never going to hit it off.
The best you can do is try wherever possible to separate the warring factions, allocating people to different projects and avoiding situations where they will have to work closely together. If that’s not possible, you may need to appeal to the common sense of both parties, acknowledging they may have issues with each other, but setting some rules of engagement and pointing out the impact their behaviour is having on the morale and performance of the rest of the team.
5. It’s all work and no play
The happiest teams are often those where people are able to work and have fun together. Enforced jollity is never a good idea, but if you can find ways for people to get to know each other on a personal level, it will lead to better working relationships all round. It doesn’t have to be a big event. The occasional team lunch, drinks at 4 pm on a Friday or a trip out to the local bowling alley are all easy to organise and can make a real difference to the way colleagues gel. Be conscious of the different ages, abilities and interests in your team, particularly if you are organising something physical. And remember that not everyone will want to socialise with colleagues – and that’s OK.