PEMBROKE, Mass. — I recently spent time at a Laundromat and observed these dynamics. The wash/dry/fold person was going about her task as if in a trance. Every so often, she looked up and grumbled at no one. The other staffer, the floor attendant, peered sourly at her co-worker. Once, she yelled out something, and there were sparks in the air. There was the look of intense hatred, of wanting to kill the other person. Clearly, there was something going on between the two employees.
“Oh, there’s always something going on between those two,” the owner said when I asked about it. “They’re like old hens. I just ignore the disagreements, and the friction goes away.”
Is this the best way to treat the situation? After all, the staffers aren’t shirking the work. What’s between them is between them. In time, they will get over their discontent. Besides, the boss says, he has enough headaches just trying to get his work out.
I don’t think so.
If you allow staffers to squabble, it shows you don’t care if your operation runs smoothly. It also reveals that you don’t value staffers enough to want to help resolve their differences of opinion. After all, it’s not much fun to work in such a poisoned atmosphere. Your live-and-let-live attitude demonstrates your management style—the ostrich that hides his head in the ground.
The proactive course is to recognize the problem, bring the squabbling parties together—face-to-face—and have them confront the issue (with you as a referee) to move toward a solution, or at least a truce.
Wait until their shift is over, say to each that you know something is going on, and insist they meet you right after work for coffee at a nearby café, your treat.
Listen to each complaint. Umpire the discussion to keep it civil. Don’t let the parties fight among themselves. Let one party speak, then the other. Aim for the truth.
If the parties won’t talk, then it is up to you to get them to open up. Keep asking questions until someone begins to reveal their feelings. Point out that two feuding employees working together is an untenable situation, and that the bad vibes create a foul atmosphere. Finally, you, the boss, reach the point of hating to go into work. State that if a resolution is not found, then one party will have to go. That should encourage some discussion.
While listening, you must make this determination and then, like Solomon, devise a miraculous solution. You remember Solomon’s solution? Two mothers each claim a baby, and Solomon’s solution is to cut the baby in half. One woman protests, revealing to Solomon the real mother. He gives her the child.
Let’s say the dispute is over effort and one party says the other isn’t doing his share. It is up to you to determine the validity of the accusation. Another thought is to reassign tasks, so that each has a more equitable workload. Still another ploy is agreeing to watch over each staffer’s activities and record your findings. After a week or so, meet with them again, report what you found and make changes.
Maybe they’re feuding because one employee is bossy, and the other staffer feels badgered. Clear the airways by explaining that neither party can boss the other; both are equal co-workers. Offer several suggestions to the bossy one for revising his approach. Or, tack a list of each staffer’s duties on the wall, so that the work demarcation is clearly laid out. A third strategy is to agree to monitor the aggressive staffer and squelch the bossiness when it comes up.
It’s possible the edgy employee has a personal problem and is taking it out on co-workers. Try to help with his/her problem. Counsel the person in the importance—no, the necessity—of having a positive attitude. Make it clear that there must be a change or further, more severe measures will be necessary.
One way or another, get the two people to shake hands and agree to get along. You might have to write out an agreement and hand copies to each individual. Putting things in writing formalizes the arrangement and provides a common point of reference.
This counseling (some would call it babying) takes time. But it demonstrates that you are not afraid to confront tough situations. And it shows that you will not tolerate dissension.
If you take action, you can make in-house bickering a thing of the past.