In one of my recent workshops, one of the participants raised this question: "Will you please give us your thoughts on how to manage difficult working relationships?" Wow. Anyone reading this could probably write a book on this topic. We've all experienced this to one degree or another whether we were directly involved or as a witness to this issue among others around us. And it doesn't matter what face we put on a "difficult working relationship". While my thoughts could apply to any who find themselves embroiled in such a drama, I'm taking the point of view of the leader who is accountable for the people who are participating in this damaging behavior. In the closing I'll also expand the topic by taking a broader view of the leadership issues that accompany workplace dysfunction.
Why do I call this "damaging behavior"? Let me count the ways.
For the Employee:
Few want to put themselves at risk of their job by "ratting out" the offenders. Will the employee lose standing with their co-workers? With the boss? The result: more anxiety added to an already high level. The boss will say "You should have told me", often in order to deflect any personal responsibility. This behavior will confirm why the employee was afraid to broach the subject early on. My experience: If the boss had set the right climate and had routinely been engaged with regular communications, one or more of the most conscientious people would have quietly given the boss a heads up. For example: "I don't want to get in the middle of anything here but you ought to be aware that when you're not around there is some very divisive behavior in our group that warrants your attention."
For the Leader:
Leaders must know and act on these kinds of issues early in the game by having regular communications with all employees in small groups and one-on-one. In my view there are too many leaders who instinctively know this but simply don't put it on their calendars and commit to it like any other important obligation. They may say or think "I'll work it in as I have the time". Of course they never think they have the time or it's not convenient so it rarely if ever happens. In short, some don't have a clue and most don't have a plan and the discipline to execute it. This can happen at any level of any business, large or small.
All leaders start on Day #1 with 100% credibility. There is only one way it can go from there. Credibility is first given on faith. From Day #2 forward, it must be earned/maintained on a situation by situation basis. And it can plummet quickly when leaders don't follow through with appropriate and timely communications and actions. Next time in Part 2, I'll make positive suggestions on how to better manage these situations with difficult employees; and better yet, offerings on how to nip these things in the bud or prevent them all together.
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