Have you ever known colleagues who held each other in such contempt, they were barely on speaking terms? For some colleagues I have known, their negative interactions have gone on for months, if not years.
In defense of people caught in this dynamic, they would say they are resorting to this behaviour due to a very long history of hurtful or disrespectful behaviour from the other person. They often say they have tried to turn this relationship around and that the other person is incapable of change. They might even argue they are putting in an exceptional effort simply by being at work and having limited communication with that person.
Yes, it is certainly true that some people don’t change. Some people refuse to take responsibility for their part of a problem, make amends and then change their part of the negative pattern. But what do you do if neither colleague changes and both remain in the same team?
Leaders are very right to be concerned about colleagues who have an entrenched negative dynamic going on. There is the concern, of course, for the individuals’ health and well-being. Over time, the stress may cause one or both people to go on stress leave or suffer health problems.
Left unaddressed, such dynamics can also affect their team, with people sometimes taking sides. This negativity, even if not expressed only through avoiding each other, can take a workplace with an awesome culture to one that is awful, particularly if they are long serving staff or in a leadership role. And, over time, it will certainly affect the morale and performance of others in their team. I sometimes picture such individuals as two black holes circling one another, dragging others into their gravitational pull.
So, what do you do if you have two colleagues who are giving each other the cold shoulder for way too long? Check out these ideas for influencing change:
- Explore the motivators: Assuming you have a relationship of trust with both people, get alongside each of them to understand how they are seeing things and how they are travelling. They may well need a lot of understanding and empathy over historical matters. When they feel understood, also explore what they are wanting in relation to the situation. If you are lucky, they may well want the situation to improve which gives you something you can work with – changing their part of the dynamic.
But for many caught in mutual distrust, they often want to be left alone which results in the status quo continuing or worsening over time. This is when you start exploring the consequences if there is no change – feeling stressed coming to work, others being affected, the team being less able to work effectively, affecting the culture you are wanting to see. Here you are trying to help them see the need for change and talking about what you are wanting.
- Communicate clear expectations about professionalism: You may well be saying that you do not expect them to become best friends. But you do expect professionalism from both. And part of being a professional is acting in certain ways, irrespective of feelings.
You may need to give a few specific examples of what you mean by professionalism, such as greeting each other in the mornings, being alert to how they are coming across, doing less of what the other perceives as hurtful, focusing on the job at hand rather than letting their emotions dictate their behaviour. These are all entirely reasonable expectations.
- Follow up with individuals: Regular follow ups to see how they are going is a way to provide support, revisit the motivators, communicate expectations and reinforce any progress, even very small steps. Remember to explore ways of overcoming the barriers to progress that may be there. Create the expectation that progress won’t be smooth as often it takes only a small reminder of past hurtful interactions to trigger a strong response.
If they are feeling pressured by your follow up, you can ease pressure by having short, rather than long meetings with the parties and ensuring that neither person is feeling judged or blamed. Remind them with kindness that change is required from both of the parties and you are not giving up. Remember that your expectation of professional behaviour is entirely reasonable.
- Provide training or external coaching: Sometimes individuals can benefit from accessing support for themselves or coaching to change their part of the dynamic. My experience has been that leaders will get a better outcome from such external coaching for the individuals when they can have a confidential conversation with the coach about the outcomes the workplace would also like to see. The coach may also be able to gain written consent from the individual they are working with to brief one of the leaders about certain matters.
Training can also be helpful in assisting individuals with the skills required to find a kinder perspective of others, repair relationships, respond well to feedback, and fit in better with others. Often parties cannot agree on the past. But they can come to some agreement about the future. The training can be helpful for the rest of the team in setting the example and doing their part to build the culture you want to see.
- Change the environment: For people who refuse to explore change, sometimes a change in the environment is needed. Examples include different reporting relationships, a change in the composition of teams, or one party being supported to transition to another team or workplace. Other times, you may be bringing new people into the team whose strong personality and good example may well help to change the dynamics.
You may be lucky enough to be in a large enough workplace where someone can be easily moved. Or perhaps senior leadership are in a position to be decisive in helping one or both people to transition to another team.
In particularly difficult circumstances, no-one is open to leaving, nor are they open to changing their behaviour. This leaves the status quo to continue or the situation worsening through a war of attrition.
Being caught in entrenched conflict is one of the most destructive dynamics in both our personal and workplace relationships. While there is a time to leave a miserable relationship or workplace, there is also a time for exhausting all reasonable attempts to influence the situation.
Certainly, the individuals concerned deserve better and your team does as well.
Quote of the week
“We cannot start over, but we can begin now, and make a new ending.”
– Zig Ziglar