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Workplace Worries: When Colleagues Fall Out

The CIPD has just published research claiming that half of workers don’t like their colleagues! Surprising? Perhaps not if you work on Top Gear!

Even in happy workplaces, there’s tension from time to time. Sometimes it gets really serious. That’s no fun for anyone, the business has to waste time sorting it out and productivity suffers. Most of the reasons given were that colleagues are ‘annoying’ or ‘rude’ and that personalities clash in the office. Two of the other reasons cited were a lack of ‘friendliness’ and colleagues who espouse a poor work ethic yet are bossy and controlling. As most of us spend more conscious time with our work colleagues than our families and partners, there are bound to be such clashes.

Sometimes minor behavioural modifications can make all the difference. A typical example is a task driven fee earner (often, but not always male) who focused on the day ahead walks past his team blindly without even saying good morning. There’s a type and he or she is simply focusing on what he/she has to do that day, not the people in the room. I agree it is rather gauche, but it’s not intended to be rude. To understand often takes the sting out. We tend to see this type of behaviour with accountants, surveyors, solicitors, engineers and scientists (sorry chaps, but its true). Individually they are perfectly nice, very busy, people, but they tend not to see the point of ‘idle chatter’. If I can persuade them to greet the assembled team with a cheery “good morning” (or something of that type) and a short rapport building conversation, it usually does the trick.

Sometimes it’s more difficult. This week we gave some advice to a manager to try and resolve a tense situation between two women who work in the same office. They just don’t like each other and the whole thing regularly boils over into complaints. They don’t even need to talk to each other all that much in the course of their work, but their very presence in the same office seems to set them off. The odd thing is that when the manager sits in the office with them, everything’s fine. It goes to Hell in handcart when he’s out.

While you can use mediation (whether an informal facilitated meeting or a fully mediation process),the best time to do is early on. If things have reached breaking point, it’s usually too late.

We say that while it’s nice to be friendly in the workplace, employees don’t have to like each other. They do need to work together though and that work must be conducted in a courteous and co-operative fashion.

There will always be tensions between staff particularly as workplaces become more diverse. Some commentators have suggested that whilst open plan offices are great for a team that works well together sharing ideas, it doesn’t give much privacy when tensions arise or an employee has a problem he needs some space to sort out. You can’t redesign a building, but it helps if there’s somewhere to go to get away from the wrong kind of atmosphere if only for five minutes.

Here are some tips which may defuse the situation of frazzled colleagues.

1. Understand that there is a difference between a colleague who is being unhelpful and one who is a bully, or otherwise preventing you from doing your job.

2. Consider why you don't like this person. What is he or she doing that annoys you? Could you be equally annoying? Think about how you come across (none of us are perfect) and be prepared to modify your own behaviour.

3. Try to bridge the gap by building greater understanding between you. Engage with them by communicating appropriately. Try to have a clear and truthful conversation about the things that are bothering you both. The key thing here is to be courteous, respect personal boundaries and be prepared to listen. Neither of you will like what you hear initially, but you’re both going to have to deal with it. Use the following framework as the basis for the conversation.

  • Recognise that there is tension between you.
  • Describe the behaviour that is causing tension.
  • Give specific examples.
  • Explain how these actions affect you.
  • Ask what you can do to build a better relationship.

4. Don’t let your feelings run away with you. Use temperate language and avoid extremes like “never” and “always” which can be a bit parental.

5. Last but not least, don’t gossip about your colleague. It make things so much worse.

If things can’t be resolved, a manager may need to knock the employees’ heads together (metaphorically speaking) and tell them that if they can’t work together the company will have to take formal action. This may include changing roles, locations and even in extreme cases, dismissal.

It's inevitable that, at some stage, you'll work with people you don't like. By adopting these tips, you will be able to cope much better and may with patience be able to resolve the problem.

Russell HR Consulting provides expert knowledge in HR solutions, employment law training and HR tools and resources to businesses across the UK.

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