“Managing difficult relationships” is finally recognized as a leadership skill these days. This can refer to a difficult relationship between you and a colleague or between two other colleagues, but as a leader—with or without portfolio—you need to know how to deal with this if it shows up on your team.
In the 21st century, when collaborative teams run the show more than dictatorial leaders, relationship is everything. (Ok, that's not breaking news, but it’s easily forgotten.) Leadership has become less about giving orders and more about community organizing—and specifically about getting results from a team of independent-minded individuals who often have to work closely with each other under stressful conditions. (Rock & roll has taught me some lessons in this, which we'll talk about shortly.)
Managing difficult relationships can sound soft, squishy, and inconsequential compared to sexy stuff like boosting sales or elevating performance, but the latter is directly affected by the former. When work gets bogged down because of fractious conflict between team members, productivity takes a hike. Unfortunately, those leaders who devalue the “soft” skills of facilitating, coaching, conflict resolution, etc. would rather have someone else deal with this touchy-feely stuff, while they deal with "more important" matters.
Well, I could devote a book to this. (Oh, wait, I already did.) But in this short post I’ll point out a couple things that may be useful to consider.
For starters, if we’re talking about managing difficult relationships we’re talking about managing conflict. But let’s not confuse creative conflict, which is the lifeblood of any innovative team, with personal conflict, which is often personality-based and not useful. (Professor Karen Jehn of the Melbourne Business School refers to the latter as “interpersonal conflict” or “relationship conflict” in contrast to “task conflict” or what I’m calling creative conflict.) If two people are at odds because they see an issue from different perspectives, especially given the different functions they serve (e.g., engineering vs. sales), that’s something you want more of! That’s creative conflict or task conflict. (You still may need to set some ground rules for how that creative conflict can be hashed out, as I’ve mentioned previously.)
Relationship conflict—where disagreements turn personal—is a different matter. If colleagues feel attacked or disrespected, or arguments between members are disruptive to the team, an intervention is needed. Best done on the spot by the team itself. (Hopefully there are guidelines that the team has already established, which the offending parties need to be reminded of.) Better yet to head off the problems before they occur.
From my years in the music business, playing in a dozen "rock & roll teams," I witnessed (and contributed to) plenty of personal conflict. Here are three—of many—lessons I learned that could have prevented the worst of these problems to begin with. I pieced this together years after the fact, but I can apply it now to the business teams I consult to.
1. Have everyone understand basic human differences—cultural, racial, generational, gender-based, etc. Most important are PERSONALITY differences, which trump all other kinds. In some of the bands I played in, members shared the same gender, race, age, background, etc. but we still argued incessantly with each other, because we were wired up to see and react to the world differently—and didn’t know it. We had personality-based views that continually clashed with each other, and we had no tools for dealing with it. So unless you work by yourself (which almost nobody does really) this is something worth boning up on. The Myers-Briggs personality inventory is the most popular one, while the Enneagram system is a deeper cut at personality archetypes. But other typologies can be useful too. (Warning: personality typing is NOT to be used for job placement; this is a team-building tool.)
2. Don’t let any team member become isolated. Especially if much of the conflict seems to arise from the actions of one member. It’s easy to blame all the problems on that one individual and steer a wide berth around him or her. Bad idea. It’s better to be in closer communication and find out what’s going on with that person. Sometimes you discover s/he is dealing with issues outside of work that are affecting issues at work. Other times you discover the person has a bone to pick about an issue because of something that happened in the past that you weren’t aware of. Or because it highlights a value that has overriding importance to that person. A discussion about this can reduce unnecessary friction.
3. Learn how to handle the star performers. Yes, they can be prima donnas in some ways. But talent is talent. And developing and retaining talent is a life-or-death issue for many businesses. There’s no formula for how to do this but there are a few things to consider. Star performers should not necessarily be given more responsibility (or pushed up the management ladder); sometimes they’re happiest and most productive staying where they are. Also, star performers need teammates’ cooperation to be successful, so you can’t afford to alienate the rest of the team by unduly favoring the stars.
Many major bands couldn’t manage their personal conflict and left the stage early. (Examples abound: The Beatles; Cream; The Kinks; Crosby, Stills & Nash; The Sex Pistols; Police; Clash; Guns & Roses; Oasis; and Rage Against the Machine, to name a few.) The same thing happens too often in mainstream business.