I work with a great team but a few of my team members clash. Can you give me any advice for handling personal tensions? The work itself is always done well but it creates an unpleasant environment.
Andrea, marketing manager, Fashion
This is not an easy situation and most of us have been in a team environment where there is an undercurrent of tension. I have seen managers just try and ignore the tension and conflict hoping that it would go away, or feeling like they have no control over the situation. Unfortunately this is wrong on both counts. Your role as the leader is to create an environment that’s both conducive to productivity, and that has a sense of safety and positive culture. This is not to say that either is easy to create and manage, but it is of the utmost importance if you want to drive good results, and have happy people. (And the science tells us happiness actually leads to those results).
The first question I would ask is if you have had a one on one discussion with the team members in question. Direct dialogue around where the tension comes from is really important so you can understand if it is just a personality issue, or if there are real and valid reasons underpinning it. Hearing both perspectives will give the team members a sense that you care, you are invested, and also that the current situation is unacceptable. Not everyone needs to like each other in a team, but everyone should be expected to be civil and respectful, regardless of personal opinion.
If there is an actual incident that has taken place that has caused this tension, then try and get under the skin of that and work out if there is a way to rectify it. If there is, work with them to fix it. If there isn’t, then at least have discussions about how they can avoid a similar situation happening in the future.
Purely a personality issue? This is where it gets tricky. If they don’t need to work directly together, then you can minimise the situation. It’s not ideal, but it’s doable. If they do need to interact regularly, then you need to find some common ground. Sure you could just tell them to play nice, but this is like putting lipstick on a pig and it won’t get you very far for very long.
I would try and do some strengths based work with the team. Use a tool like the Values in Action survey. Have each team member do the survey and you will get a report on each person’s strengths. Seeking to understand what the drivers and motivators are for each of your team, and for them to better understand each other, is a great way to build team morale and to find common ground.
All of a sudden, one person realizes that the other is not actually a Pollyanna who is always pretending there is good in everything, it’s just that their top strength is hope and optimism, so naturally that is the perspective they bring. And the person who has been viewed as hyperactive, which drives everyone crazy, shares that his top strength is zest, so he is one of the very few surveyed who literally has unlimited energy.
Many behavioural patterns in teams, and interactions between team members, make a lot more sense when you look at them from a strengths picture. I have seen it turn entire teams, and cultures, around so it is worth investing time in.
At the end of the day, people in a professional environment are expected to get along. That is the bottom line. But hoping they will is not a strategy. Understanding peoples perspectives, their strengths, and what they need, and opening up lines of communication, will help you address this issue so you can have a happy and productive team and a more harmonious working environment.