I’ve written previously about my early career, and how I started off as an Organizational Behavior Management program manager and ended up a very reluctant manager in charge of building and running an HR department in a rapidly growing construction company. Most of the things I learned were either from my mentor (so had a decidedly behavioral slant in the approach) or trial by fire. This is a pretty good way to learn, if a bit stressful. There’s no way you can prepare someone for everything they’ll encounter in their management journey, which is why I love being a ‘mentor on call’ for folks starting out, or entering a new industry. One of my more memorable early experiences involved a gigantic mess of interwoven personality conflicts.

The scene was thus: I got a call from the area manager one day, who was completely frustrated that the upstairs admin team and the downstairs admin team were engaging in petty bickering to the extent that the majority of his time was being spent figuring out ‘she said/she said’ scenarios, hurt feelings, and accusations. He was ready to fire everyone except his lead Billing Manager.  Not because she wasn’t involved, but because he felt she was integral to his operation.

This was my first experience with a conflict of this magnitude, but I grabbed my trusty notebook and started talking to people one by one. Here are some of the things I heard:

  • It’s not that I don’t like her, but she makes mistakes all the time that make my job harder.
  • I don’t have a problem with anyone here.
  • She’s my co-worker not my friend – I’m getting paid to do my work, not socialize with everyone.
  • The manager has no idea what a slacker she is.
  • The manager has no idea what she’s saying behind his back.
  • She doesn’t take her job seriously.
  • I might have said that, but she said this.
  • There’s a LOT going on around here – you have NO IDEA.
  • I’m not being paid to be her friend.
  • I’m not rude. Maybe I don’t say good morning, but I don’t say anything rude.

A lot of this was accompanied by tears. At the end of the interviews I was no clearer about what was going on than I was at the beginning. If some of the employees were to be believed, things were dire indeed. I was inclined to agree with the manager that everyone needed to go, but we were in boom times, and qualified employees were not growing on trees. Fortunately, my behavioral training provided me with the skills to separate emotions and interpretations from behaviors, and this turned out to be one of the most important skills I had as a manager and HR leader.

The truth is, that an action can and will be interpreted in vastly different ways depending on the person doing the interpreting. Something like not saying good morning can be interpreted as somebody is busy, somebody doesn’t like you, someone is purposely disrespecting you, or the company is going out of business, depending on who is doing the action and who is doing the interpreting. The first job of a mediator in personality conflicts is to define behaviors and come to collective agreement on interpretation.

For example, in the situation I’ve been describing, I had to explain to all parties that saying good morning was expected professional conduct, that refraining to say good morning was impolite and discourteous, and that a basic expectation of our employees was to say good morning to one another. You may think this is an exaggeration, but this not by any means the only example of this situation that I’ve encountered.

Another comment I routinely hear is that the employee is not being paid to be friends with the co-workers. This can sometimes flummox managers, but it needn’t. The response is simply that they are being paid to ACT like friends, in that friends are courteous, help one another, exchange pleasantries, and keep commitments. No, I’m not paying you to hang out after work, but you certainly are being paid for professional conduct during work hours.

The other thing I learned that served me well for the next twenty years is not to be baited by ‘I know a lot of terrible things but I’m not going to tell you’ nonsense. There are different ways to deal with this but my preferred response is to let the person know that if they’re aware of illegal or unethical things happening and they don’t tell me, they’re accomplices and will be fired and that if something’s important enough to hint at, it’s important enough to be forthright about and if it’s not, keep quiet or I will suspect you of purposely sowing seeds of distrust. After that, just use common sense and your own emotional intelligence to determine whether someone has a legitimate problem or is making trouble.

Believe it or not, the case of the personality conflicts ended well. We were able to listen to everyone’s concerns, establish boundaries and expectations, and overcome some past grievances to achieve an astonishing about face. We didn’t end up letting anyone go, and I think the area manager and I were equally surprised and delighted by the result. Of course it’s not always that easy, but it taught me that it’s worth taking the time to go through these things and explain behavior that you think should be obvious. At least once.

What was the worst personality conflict you ever dealt with and how did it turn out?

Carrie Maldonado is the founder of Today’s Leadership Solutions, a Seattle-based consulting firm providing comprehensive organizational development solutions for companies who are growing and who truly value their people.  With certified Executive Coaches, Organizational Behavior Management (OBM) practitioners, SPHR-certified HR professionals, and Organizational Development Specialists, Carrie’s team brings a unique perspective and a cross-functional approach to providing workplace solutions that work.  Carrie can be reached for consultation at carrie@todaysleadershipsolutions.com

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