How I Handled Interpersonal Conflict Between Employees

It’s inevitable that you’re just not going to like someone at work. They’ll rub you the wrong way, get under your skin, and generally irritate you with everything they say and do.

Don’t worry, they feel the same way about you too.

But even if this is the case, I never wanted — or allowed — people’s personal animosities to actually spill over into the workplace. When it came to handling interpersonal conflict between employees, the bottom line was you had to act like a professional and not let your personality differences get in the way of your work.

This is where I exercised the fourth of my non-negotiables: Leave your ego at the door and bring your brain inside.

Photo of two mockingbirds arguing. This is a good analogy for interpersonal conflict in the workplace.Internal conflict in a company is a function of ego, whether it’s two guys spraying and marking their territory, or a couple of managers fighting to expand their portfolio of responsibilities. Whatever it is, it has no place in a professional environment.

I expected people to manage their own issues and their own performance, even to the point where they could address performance problems that were caused by their co-workers. But I was pretty harsh and blunt when it came to dealing with people’s ego-driven conflicts. That behavior has no place within the organization, and it’s disrespectful of everyone else.

Just like office romances, interpersonal conflict is not something you can keep hidden, because it becomes obvious to everyone. And just like I expected people to end office romances, if people had a conflict, I expected them to end it, or I would. If it was over a workplace issue, they had to work it out and solve it. But if it was a personality conflict, and it was irreconcilable, it would never work unless someone broke the chain. That sometimes meant letting someone go, or one of them leaving of their own volition.

When that happened, the rest of the organization would heave a huge sigh of relief, because those kinds of conflicts are never quiet. Everyone knows about them, so it spoils the working environment. The longer you leave it, people start picking sides and it becomes a different, and bigger, issue.

As it grows, the attitudes become entrenched about the people involved: 50 percent of the people think you’re an idiot, the other 50 percent think you’re great. That attitude can rot the company from within and cause a huge divide within the whole organization that really only started because two people couldn’t get along. So it’s necessary to cut it out before it consumes everyone.

I never held an intervention

I never needed to hold an intervention to solve a personal problem between two people though. The way I see it, interpersonal issues are personal. The business is not an environment where you need to hold therapy sessions for people who had a problem with each other.

Everyone was there for a common purpose, which was to ensure the health of the enterprise, which in turn paid back handsomely to the people who made up the enterprise. In other words, everyone there had a common purpose.

If you had a business problem, then the problem could be solved, and the conflict could be ended. But if you just didn’t like someone’s voice, disagreed with their political beliefs, or just didn’t like the way they hitched their pants, that’s a personal issue, it’s not the enterprise’s problem.

My philosophy was that if someone had a problem they couldn’t resolve and they brought it to me, I had no doubt that someone would be upset and angry at the end of the session, and I resolved that it would never be me. So I would make the decision that best suited me so I wouldn’t be the one who was upset and angry.

We do that with our kids, so why should it be different with adults? We tell our kids, if you’re going to fight over this, I’ll take it away and then you’ll stop fighting. That’s the solution that will make me the least upset.

I figured if two professionals were acting like children and they would bring me something that was not a professional issue, but would still affect the company, then I would make the decision like a parent and remove the aggravation from my life. It usually meant one or both people would have to leave the company. Remember, leave your ego at the door and bring your brain inside is a non-negotiable. I can’t let your interpersonal conflict hurt the company.

As a result, people for the most part would deal with their professional issues like professionals. They left their egos at the door and brought their brains inside, and focused on what was the best for the enterprise. It kept interpersonal conflict to a minimum, and people recognized when their issues were personal in nature and worked to keep those under control.

I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business, as well as speak at conferences, trade shows, and chambers of commerce. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Photo credit: Chiltepinster (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 3.0)

Author: David Marshall
I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.