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Lean Leadership: How to Manage Difficult Working Relationships

Dec. 7, 2021
If you don’t want disfunction to reign, double down on timely communication, appropriate actions.

During one of my workshops, a participant asked this question: “Will you give us your thoughts on how to manage difficult working relationships?”

Wow. Many of you reading this very likely can relate. We have all experienced this to one degree or another--whether we were directly involved or as a witness to this issue. While my thoughts could apply to any who find themselves embroiled in such a drama, I am taking the point of view of the leader who is accountable for the people who are participating in this destructive behavior.

First, let’s clarify what we mean by “difficult working relationship.” It could be anything from a team member who deliberately flouts work rules, to bullying on the shop floor, and everything in between. Staff “fiefdoms” can be major contributors when there is tension in the offices. For example, there are always tensions between manufacturing and the sales department. When these functional leaders lob grenades over the wall to each other, how do the lower-level folks react? Monkey see, monkey do. It’s toxic. The same can be true in other functions as well. I’ve seen these behaviors between process engineering and manufacturing or product engineering. I’ve seen it between HR and accounting relative to benefits changes and administration issues.

There is simply no way to create and sustain teamwork with a group burdened by dysfunctional behavior in any form. Let me count the ways this dysfunction corrodes the workplace culture and negatively impacts customer service, quality, productivity, inventory management, etc.

  • Your best people will be frustrated and ready to scream when they finish the day.
  • Your most productive, enthusiastic people (who regularly come in early and leave late) may resort to regular shift times to maintain their sanity.
  • Your best employees will lose respect for the leader if this situation is not dealt with in a timely manner.
  • Your people may be less productive due to the bickering and drama around them. The lack of productivity and schedule execution causes poor customer service and financial performance. 
  • Some will take sides and further elevate the tension.
  • The dysfunction will spread to other areas of the business via the grapevine with people taking sides without any direct involvement.
  • More senior leaders may be unaware, so the potential death spiral continues with no hope in sight.
  • The situation persists, and some of the best performers go elsewhere to escape the frustration and overall dysfunction. During exit interviews, departing employees “blow the whistle” on those who have directly caused and participated in the group’s behaviors.
  • The leaders will wonder why nobody blew the whistle directly to them.

Why Employees Don’t Speak Up

Few people want to put their job at risk by exposing the offenders. Will the employee lose standing with their coworkers? With the boss? The result is more anxiety piled on to an already elevated level. The boss will say, “You should have told me”--often to deflect any personal knowledge or responsibility. This behavior will confirm why the employee was afraid to broach the subject earlier.

Send us your questions for Ask the Expert: Lean Leadership

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 behaviors in our group that warrant your attention.”

Moral of the Story for the Leader

Leaders must put themselves in a position to know and act on these kinds of issues early in the game. This is best accomplished by having regular communications with all employees, both in small groups and one-on-one. In my view, there are too many leaders who instinctively know this but simply don’t commit to it. They simply do not 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. This can happen at any level of any business, large or small.

All leaders start on Day 1 with 100% credibility. There is only one way it can go from there. Credibility is given on faith the first time. From Day 2 forward, it must be earned/maintained on a situation-by-situation basis. And it can plummet when leaders don’t follow through with appropriate and timely communications and actions.

“One of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes an emergency.” Arnold Glasow

“Leadership does not always wear the harness of compromise.” Woodrow Wilson

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