How To Deal With Bickering Employees?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about bickering employees: Two older females in my team at work that bicker and snap at each other. Both are alpha females.

I have two older females in my team at work that bicker and snap at each other. Both are alpha females. One has gone to HR and asked advice. HR has brought it to my attention. I need a trick to make them get along professionally.

Signed, Frustrated

Dear Frustrated:

This type of workplace situation is all-too common and is disruptive and depressing for everyone; including those directly involved. You don’t say what efforts have been made in the past to correct the problem behavior. But, apparently you have known about it and the two women know that you know.

Now, HR knows that you know. So, your role as a manager is being tested in a situation like this. it’s certainly up to you to do something substantial and significant. You can decide what approach to take based on your history of working with the employees about this problem. If you have never talked to them about the situation and directed them to change their interactions with each other, you will need to do more coaching now. They may think you don’t mind or they may simply not know how to react.

The fact that one went to HR rather than contacting you says that either she didn’t think you would help or that she hasn’t been helped in the past when she has mentioned it to you. I think that should be a concern. No matter how irritating and frustrating they both are, if you’re the manager it’s your responsibility to stop poor behavior and have it replaced with acceptable behavior. So, you certainly want to be the go-to person rather than HR. Also, the fact that one has asked HR for advice, indicates that she wants things to improve. That’s a good sign and may give you and idea of who is most likely to respond to your coaching.

We often tell employees to go to HR when they feel there is no hope if they only go to their manager, so this will be a good chance for you to assist her.If, in the past, you have asked both of them to stop bickering and they have continued, then you can take a more corrective approach from the beginning of your conversations with each of them.Here are some thoughts about how to handle it. You can adapt them as you think they will work for your work culture and the people involved.

However, before you say that something won’t work, consider if you have ever tried it and if anything else has worked better.

1. Your first step is to ensure that the problem behavior stops immediately. Being “alpha” males or females is not a reason for rude, irritating, bickering behavior. The fact that they hate each other is also not an excuse. I often use the thought: “We don’t own your attitude but your paycheck rents your behavior and performance.” So, start by saying that there may be problems that can be worked out or situations that are creating unnecessary conflict. But, whether those get worked out right away or not, it is humanly possible for them to keep quiet when they feel like saying something unpleasant and that is what you are directing them to do. I always try to be as specific as possible and I make them say the words of commitment. So, in this case I would say, “Margie, I want to make sure you understand that I’m not asking you to TRY to get along, I’m telling you that I never again want you to correct Pam about something that is not under your authority and I don’t want you to bicker back and forth about trivial matters. Instead I want you to focus on your own work and only get involved with someone else’ work when you’re asked to help or when the matter is very serious.

If you’re concerned, come to me, don’t voice your displeasure to Pam. So, just to make sure you are clear on that, let me test you about it. If tomorrow Pam does something you think she should do differently, how are you going to react? (I MAKE Margie say that she will stay focused on her own work and not react to Pam in a hostile or negative way, but will come to me if she has a serious concern.) Then I would reiterate my first thought. “Good. There may be things that we can do to help the situation or to make it less likely there will be conflict. But the rude, bickering behavior has to stop now. That’s my direction to you and I’ll be monitoring the situation.”I might say to the less problematic one (if she is), “Pam, I’m glad you went to HR with this because it gets it out in the open. There’s no doubt about it, the situation has been frustrating and irritating and I haven’t known how to make it stop. But, here’s what I want now and I’m going to be monitoring the situation closely: Please, focus on your own work and don’t get involved with anyone else’ work unless you are asked. If Margie says something that irritates you, tell her to get in touch with me about her concerns. I’ve instructed her to do the same thing. The main thing is that starting this moment, I never again want you to say or do something that is meant to be rude, corrective, cutting or criticizing to Margie, no matter what the provocation.

Just to test you, let me give you a sample situation. Tomorrow you’re working and Margie tells you that you did something the wrong way. What will you do? (I would wait and make sure she tells me that she won’t respond but will instead tell Margie to contact me about it.) Yes, that will put more pressure on you for the interviews and for the times when they come to you about things, but that is what managers are for. Also, if you see that one is obviously creating more problems than the other, you’ll have documentation.

2. Be certain about the role each person is playing in the conflict. It is a cowardly approach to blame both people equally when one is clearly the aggressor. Even a very nice person will push back if someone is attacking them. Bullies at work often point to things the other person has said or done to make people believe it is not all their fault. But the truth is that they start the conflicts, look for ways to jab or pick at others, then stand back and chortle when the other person tries to defend herself. Or they run to the boss and say “Look what she did to me.” Not long ago I reviewed a situation in an office where the supervisor, knowing that one person was an aggressive in-your-face person and the other was mild-mannered and a hard worker who usually avoided conflict, nevertheless told both of them they were equally responsible for a contentious situation. When I asked the supervisor why she did that she said, “It’s easier than telling the mouthy one that she’s to blame. That would just put me on her hit list and I don’t want that.” Gutless. If one person is more to blame or is more often cutting than the other, assign a higher degree of responsibility to that person for the unpleasantness.

3. There may be aspects about the work that are creating contention unnecessarily and that need to be worked out (use of supplies, conflicting instructions, one person has much more work than the other, etc.). They may have very different work styles or communication styles and have not learned to moderate those so they can work with those who are different than them. Or, they may feel they have to prove something to you and are competing all the time. It will be necessary to investigate that situation, if you don’t know already what might be the issue. Consider if they absolutely must work close to each other. Do they have to share tools or supplies. Is there something you could do that would lessen the hostility.

Don’t give them perks that others don’t have, in your efforts to make things better. But, if you can make some changes strongly consider doing so.We recently heard from someone who reported that the manager’s way of dealing with a problematic employee was to isolate that employee in her own large office with a large window in a preferred part of the office, while the others stayed in their former group location. Avoid anything that rewards problem employees for their behavior.

4. Talk to each of them individually. There are some who would recommend bringing them together. But, while they are still angry at each other is not the time. You can bet that the one who went to HR feels she is the victim and the other one is angry that she didn’t go to HR first. If they could work things out by talking they would have done so by now. So, focus on having each one correct her own behavior.Be honest about your own feelings related to this matter. Let each employee know that their bickering has been a negative influence at work for a long time, but that you have hoped they would find ways to work together without you intervening. Now you realize that isn’t going to happen and as the manager your role is be get involved and make sure the workplace is allows all employees to be optimally productive.Among the things you should cover in that discussion: *What you value about them and why it is important to the business that they continue to do those positive things.*What you do not like about their behavior or performance and the negative impact it has on work and why it must stop immediately. Not over time, immediately.*What you want the employee to do in the future, instead of the problem things.*What you will do as a manager if you observe the employee doing the things you have just directed her not to do.Consider the One-Minute Manger approach to that interview. Dr. Ken Blanchard suggests this formula, and he says to keep it brief (about half a minute for the first part.) *What you’ve observed or found out about. *How it makes you feel and the effect it has on work. Stop and let them talk about it. You can acknowledge some of their defensive statements or simply listen.*What you want the employee to do instead of what they are now doing. *What you will do if they don’t correct the behavior.Dr. Blanchard says it’s crucial to include the “instead” information and what you will do if that doesn’t happen.

5. Finally, don’t forget the other employees, if there are any. Strongly support those who are doing well and who have not created contention. Don’t talk badly about the employees you’re correcting. Give it time and if the two employees have improved, acknowledge it and tell them you’re proud that they have been able to make the changes needed.This is where many managers lose it. Often they will let things go right back to where they were without correcting again, taking disciplinary action or asking for dismissal based on bad behavior and failure to follow direction about it.Or, the manager will be overly effusive to the employees, even going so far as to give them bonuses or commendations they wouldn’t normally get, as a thank you.

Keep in mind that good behavior is required, it’s not above and beyond the usual requirements.Or, they let things improve somewhat but not completely and call it good. The improvement has to be total and complete. As you can tell, there is no trick to solving this problem, but there are supervisory and managerial actions that can force the two employees to behave differently. The way to achieve that is to know what you want and what HR or your higher managers will support, then direct better behavior.

Once you have directed better behavior and they are beginning to comply with those directions, you can focus on determining if there is any aspect of the work that can be changed to help keep the behavioral changes going. For example, if one of them talks and laughs loudly on the telephone while the other is more subdued, it would be appropriate to tell the loud one to lower her voice so as not to disturb others. If one is dependent upon the other to get work done in a specific time frame but the other one procrastinates, that should be corrected or a good time line worked out.At some point you will be able to step back and return to a more observant role than a direct-involvement role. But, these two will probably always need to be monitored more than others. Never give up and never let things slide back to the old, unpleasant way.Best wishes with this. If you have the time and wish to do so, we’d be interested in hearing what you do and what results you obtain.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.