When disagreements at work are unresolved, one of the unfortunate outcomes can be long lasting workplace feuds.
These can simmer and fester for years, infecting a whole workplace with negativity and keeping everyone stuck. I got to see a perfect example of a debilitating workplace feud a few years ago at a state social services agency where I did some consulting.
The agency had two different offices in the San Francisco Bay area, both with service providers, managers, and administrative staff. When I met with one of the managers, the main front office administrative assistants for the two offices hadn’t spoken to each other for over two years due to a bitter feud. They refused to interact directly, so the site managers ran interference and acted as intermediaries for all interoffice verbal communications, no matter how routine.
You can imagine the wasted time and frustration of the busy site managers and the very inefficient and indirect communication that resulted. At first it was hard for me to believe the untenable situation had endured for that long!
One of the people involved retired before we had agreed upon a coaching and training program, so I didn’t end up working with them, but this is how I planned to proceed:
Coach the managers.
My analysis: The managers were engaging in a classic codependency situation. They were enabling the front office staff members to avoid a significant part of their job.
Why? (my initial assessment)
- Although highly competent women in other areas, they weren’t trained in how to address conflict and, like many dedicated people in social and health services, were themselves conflict avoidant and people pleasers. oooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo
- As is typical of many women in these fields, they were especially vulnerable to feeling responsible for everything and taking on work outside of their job descriptions rather than delegating or asking for help.
How to coach them effectively?
- Gently guide them to look at their inner assumptions and beliefs about themselves and about being a leader. Offer them loving support and perspective to explore how their own past, including childhood and earlier work experiences, has influenced their behavior as managers. ooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo
- Encourage them to claim their authority, and create a safe and supportive environment for them to practice setting limits and figure out how to be leaders, how to explicitly require professional behavior from their staff and then support and guide their staff to do so. oooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo
- As part of the process, help them explore and release fears and false messages. For example, both supervisors may need to tell the administrative assistants that although they don’t have to like each other, they must find a way to communicate courteously and professionally or the problem will be reflected negatively in their evaluations and even result in termination.
Coach the individual office workers.
Offer loving support and acceptance. And, also make the stakes clear; remind them that their supervisors have said they won’t let them continue this behavior, so their jobs could be at risk if they don’t find a way to change. Help them express their hurt and anger that led to the feud, see their judgments about the other person, and examine their own part in the conflict instead of only blaming the other. Then, with more perspective, help them chart a path forward toward letting go and establishing new agreements for communication.
Help the organization create and implement clear policies, procedures, and programs to address similar situations in the future.
When this kind of pattern repeats at a company or organization over and over, it goes way beyond the issues between the individuals. One training or coaching series won’t work. One written policy statement, no matter how lucid, won’t work. The organization or company needs continuing commitment to change through concrete goals and actions.