Larry Fast
May 05, 2017

The Fast Lane: 13 Ways 'Difficult Relationships' Damage Company Culture

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Part 1: 

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.

  1. There is simply no way to create and sustain teamwork with a group burdened by dysfunctional behavior in any form.
  2. Your best people will be frustrated and ready to scream when they finish the day. (Most of us know what this looks and sounds like when we get home and it isn't fair to our families.)
  3. Your most productive people who regularly come in early and leave late will likely resort to nearer a standard work day to maintain their sanity.
  4. Your best team players will lose respect for the leader if this situation isn't dealt with in a timely manner.
  5. All of your people will be less productive due to the bickering and drama around them.  Too many distractions.
  6. Some of your people will be taking sides and risk further elevating the tension.
  7. The dysfunction will likely spread to other areas of the business via the grapevine with people taking sides without any direct involvement.
  8. The leader is unaware so the death spiral continues with no hope in sight.
  9. The lack of productivity ends up causing spillover effects on customer service.
  10. The lack of productivity ends up causing spillover effects on financial performance.
  11. Ultimately all stakeholders of the company may be negatively affected if these kinds of behaviors are pervasive in the culture.
  12. The situation persists and your best people start to leave.
  13. During the exit interviews one or more of the departing employees "blows the whistle" on those who have been directly causing and participating in the group's dysfunction. The leader will wonder why nobody blew the whistle directly to him/her much earlier.

Read More: Are Hard Skills or Soft Skills more important to company culture?

So What's the Moral of the Story?

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. 

In Conclusion

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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