Colleagues at war must toe the line

Warring colleagues in a growing SME need to shape up or ship out, says Workplace Doctor Roger Delves.

I have two key members of my team that I rely on. They are both integral to my growing SME but in very different ways – one is the chief financial officer, the other the head of marketing and communications. The problem is that they loathe each other – to the point that they find it difficult to attend a meeting without breaking into a shouting match. I need to manage this conflict quickly as it’s affecting the morale of the team, particularly as my colleagues are intent on recruiting staff members into their rival camps. What’s the best strategy to resolve this? ZA, Dubai

I think you will need more than one strategy, because if the first does not work then you will need a fallback to be put in place very quickly. You will need to act firmly and like a decisive leader if you are to make a success out of this.

First, let’s be clear: these two are acting unprofessionally and are endangering your business. If they can’t sort themselves out, you must let one of them or both of them go. If you don’t, then you risk your business.

Get them together and make them tell you, and each other, what is at the heart of their disagreement. You may know already, or you may think you do, but make them say it. Make them agree that this is what they disagree about, then make them address it. Make them resolve it, or at least agree to work around or ignore it, so that normal business can be resumed. Make sure that they both understand the culture you are determined to create and their role in building and sustaining that culture.

Don’t for a moment think this will be easy, or comfortable, or quick. These two may not even remember why they hate each other. It may be that one, or both of them simply hate everyone. You may need a facilitator or moderator to help them sort out their differences. But you can’t avoid doing this. The status quo is not acceptable, not least because it undermines you as leader.

This is important: once they have apparently resolved their differences, make sure they understand that if they deviate from their agreement to behave appropriately, you will let one or both of them go. If I were you, I’d begin to decide which I would be most prepared to lose, who I could most readily replace and so on. If you have an ideal replacement for one of them, get that replacement warmed up and ready, just in case.

OK, fast forward. Let’s assume that all the above has happened, and they can’t get along. You let one of them go and you replace him. Your new man starts work and the remaining one of the Terrible Twins now begins to argue and butts heads with him as well. Don’t hesitate. Get rid of the remaining twin. In an SME, especially a growing one with potential, you simply cannot allow an individual to derail the group effort. You can already see what effect these two warring clowns are having on the team. Imagine if this went on for another year or 18 months. Imagine if they went ballistic in front of a client.

The most important thing you have beyond your intellectual property is your culture. These individuals cannot possibly reflect the culture you want to have, so they cannot be a credit to your organisation. When you run an SME, you cannot afford to carry senior figures who are not a credit to you. Some people simply see everything as a win/lose event, and therefore every encounter is a conflict.

If you are unlucky enough to have two of these, then neither of them has a long-term future with your organisation. You need to man up, face them down, make them change and, if they cannot, get them out of your organisation before it gets destroyed in the fighting, collateral damage in someone else’s war.

Doctor’s prescription:

As you move forward with your SME, by all means rely on roles such as marketing, sales, operations and so on. Rely on and believe in a vision. Rely on and believe in a culture. Try not to rely on individuals. Relying on an individual is simply creating a hostage to fortune – as you are discovering right about now.

Roger Delves is the director of the Ashridge Executive Masters in Management and an adjunct professor at the Hult International Business School. He is the co-author of The Top 50 Management Dilemmas: Fast Solutions to Everyday Challenges. Email him at for advice on any work issues.

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Published: December 16, 2014 04:00 AM


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