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How to Manage Employees Who Become Enemies

What it takes to transform workplace foes into friends, or at least productive co-workers.
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When two of your employees become filled with hatred for each other, managing the relationship requires a deft touch. As the leader, it's your job to make sure the conflict does not escalate out of control, interfering with other employees and causing other problems for your business.

Liane Davey, the vice president of team solutions at Knightsbridge Human Capital and author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done, says that you need to first understand what gives rise to such feelings. "Hatred is the product of miscommunication, misunderstanding, and fear--empathy can dissolve it," Davey writes in Harvard Business Review.

Now, it's time to get to work finding the issues driving the enmity. "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," she writes.

Check out Davey's tips on how to manage two employees who hate each other.

Inspect under the hood

How are the two parties interacting within the roles you've created? Before you dive into the interpersonal tension between them, Davey says to make sure the conflict isn't due to 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," she writes. "Make sure their relationship is set up for success."

Give relentless feedback

As a manager, you need to dissect the behavior and interactions of the two fighting factions. "When you are ready, relentlessly provide feedback whenever you see symptoms of the poor relationship," Davey writes. "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?'" You must take each opportunity to point out a person's bad behavior and figure out what feelings are causing him or her to act out. Make sure your feedback ends with open-ended questions so the person has to respond.

Ask questions and listen

Now it's time to talk with the two sides separately. As the employees answer your questions, try to discover the seeds of their acrimony. "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," Davey says. She suggests pushing forward with the questions and letting the answers lead you to additional, deeper questions. Ask what worries them, how they see the situation playing out, and what they experience when the other person does something. "You are attempting to get beneath the person's biased perceptions of situations and down into their motives and beliefs," Davey writes. "That's where the emotion is coming from."

Make hypotheses

As you hear more of the employees' answers, piece together why they may be feeling the way they do. If your employee says he believes his co-worker is trying to destroy his career, Davey says you could say, "I get the sense that when [he or she] 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." Davey says you need to find a way to make each side understand how their thoughts and feelings affect how they perceive the other.

Encourage empathy

Once you have listened to them, figured out where they are emotionally, and determined what issues they are worried about, it's time to help them see the other person's side. "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," Davey writes. Put each person inside his foe's shoes--it's important for them to understand how their behavior affects the other person and the relationship as a whole.

Bring them together

After you have successfully helped your employees to realize their role in the relationship, it's time to bring them together to talk things out. Let the two employees talk about their conflict and come to a resolution by explaining their side and understanding where the other is coming from. Don't interrupt unless they need a nudge to get going or to talk about an aspect of the struggle they're trying to avoid.

Last updated: Jun 11, 2014

WILL YAKOWICZ | Staff Writer | Reporter, Inc.com

Will Yakowicz is a staff writer for Inc. magazine. He has covered business, crime, and local politics for The Brooklyn Paper and was the editor of Park Slope Patch. He has also reported on the West Bank and Moscow for Tablet Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.




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