what to do when 2 people on your team don’t get along

You thought you had a smoothly-functioning team – but now a personal dispute between two staff members is threatening your team’s stability and creating unpleasantness for people around them. What can you do when two people on your team don’t get along?

Before you intervene in any personal dispute between staff members, it’s key to determine the answer to these two questions: How is it impacting the work? And how is it impacting the work environment, both for the people involved and for others around them? You want to stay focused on these questions because whether or not two employees like each other isn’t really your business. You don’t need your staff to be best friends, and it’s fine if people aren’t huge personal fans of each other. But you do need them to work together productively, to be pleasant and professional, and not to create a tense or unpleasant work environment. And that’s where your feedback should be focused – not on their personal feelings toward each other.

It’s entirely reasonable to tell people involved in a coworker dispute that you expect them to behave pleasantly and professionally at work, regardless of their personal feelings for each other, and that part of their jobs is to deal with their coworkers civilly. You should then hold them to that just like you would any other performance expectation.

That said, handling these situations fairly doesn’t require treating both employees exactly the same. If it’s clear to you that one person is in the wrong – or significantly more in the wrong than the other – your discussions with each of them should reflect that. For instance, if you have a situation where one employee is being hostile to another, you should give the instigator the “I expect you to behave pleasantly and professionally” talk above. And then you might meet with the target of the hostility to say something like, “I’ve made it clear to Jane that she needs to treat you pleasantly and professionally. Please let me know if you continue to have problems.”

Additionally, personal disputes should be a rarity. You want to build a team where it’s widely understood that personal conflicts are out of sync with your culture, and where people handle disagreements kindly and professionally. You can do that by modeling that behavior yourself, by talking explicitly about how you expect team members to relate to each others, and by calling it out quickly when you see behavior that doesn’t match up with what you want.

I originally published this post at QuickBase’s Fast Track blog.

{ 41 comments… read them below }

    1. KimmieSue*

      I thought the same thing!!!!
      What not to do when two team members are not getting along? DO NOT give them access to note taking utensils or garbage cans!!!

      1. Snork Maiden*

        Or if you do, they only get crayons, which is an appropriate writing tool for third grade behaviour.

    1. Cath in Canada*


      When I first glanced at the photo on the QuickBase site, I thought it was of people playing rock paper scissors. Which is funny because I suggested solving a disagreement at a conference I recently helped organise by rock paper scissors, and was overruled – the head of the organisation wanted rock paper scissors lizard Spock instead.

      1. Lily in NYC*

        I would have loved to have seen that! I tried to play the lizard spock version and failed miserably. My poor little brain couldn’t handle it.

        1. Nerd Girl*

          My kids and I play Rock Paper Lizard Scissors Spock when we’re in places where we have to wait or be patient. My son (he’s 8) loves this. And it always cracks me up when someone thinks we made it up. LOL! I wish I was the person who came up with that, but we just saw it on the Big Bang Theory and loved it!

  1. Lunaire*

    Probably significantly more difficult if the two people not getting along are the only two you have on the team…

  2. HM in Atlanta*

    +10000000000000000000000 (look, there just aren’t enough zeroes) to not treating them the same when one is significantly more wrong/at fault.

    At my second job, coworker thought she should have been promoted into my role (I was hired from outside the company). Apparently, this was entirely my fault, and I had to die. No hyperbole – she told me if she saw me in the parking lot, she would run over me with her vehicle. [Also, rifling through my desk and giving contents to other people, scheduling meetings for me with other people and then complaining to them about me when I didn’t show up to the unknown meeting, etc.]

    Management’s response – Bring in a mediator for us to work through our issues. I couldn’t fix her issue -me in “her” job. She exhibited the same behavior with my predecessor and my successor (only time I worked somewhere less than a year), and management was surprised each time.

    1. Mike C.*

      I agree here. I get so sick and tired of people who don’t want to do the hard work of actually understanding what the conflict is, and instead use “the truth must be in the middle” as a crutch.

      1. soitgoes*

        Yeah, that’s a really great way to pressure the more reasonable party into codependency, since the only way to reach a compromise is for the reasonable one to give in to the craziness every single time – of course the crazy one won’t budge, but management is pushing the notion of ~compromise.

        1. Artemesia*

          Our political system now runs this way. And threatening to run you over is assault — it would have been tempting to actually report it to the police since the management couldn’t deal.

      2. Mina*

        This is the situation I’m caught in. My direct co worker created a situation of such hostility that I ended up having an emotional breakdown and now see a psychologist. My boss’ solution: “treating us equally but not fairly”. We both got reprimand letters. I am apparently responsible for my own breakdown. I swear upon Ceiling Cat that I did EVERYTHING I could to fix this situation, but she has a chip the size of a mountain on her shoulder, and has decided I’m the Wicked Witch of the West. My boss simply doesn’t want to deal with it.

    2. Elizabeth West*

      +10000000000000000000000 (look, there just aren’t enough zeroes) to not treating them the same when one is significantly more wrong/at fault.

      I so agree. I used to hate this when my parents did it too.
      Also, SHE THREATENED TO RUN OVER YOU?????? 0_0

    3. IndieGir*

      Oh, I so agree. I had a boss once say, “Well, it takes two to tango” and I replied “But it only takes one to be an axe-wielding psychopath.”

      1. Mister Pickle™*

        “Well, it takes two to tango”

        Yeah, that’s the kind of sophisticated deep analysis you need in these kinds of situations.


    4. Mister Pickle™*

      +10000000000000000000000 (look, there just aren’t enough zeroes) to not treating them the same when one is significantly more wrong/at fault.

      I hope y’all will forgive me for piling on, but yes, this. I don’t know why but the Common Wisdom for this kind of thing[1] almost always builds on the notion that both parties are equally right / equally wrong. Which is pretty much insane. Imagine the criminal justice system if a bankrobber and a bank were both equally guilty in the eyes of the law?[2] Maybe people are confusing “workplace conflict” with “divorce”?[3]

      In any event: yay Alison!

      [1] in America, at least.
      [2] although it’s getting harder to tell the two apart these days.
      [3] it is a common conceit to avoid blaming either party when a couple splits.

    5. Mary Michele*

      It was my fault also that a woman didn’t get promoted into my job, I too was hired from outside. She did everything in her power to make my job hell. She tried to show everyone she should have been the one to get the job, by undermining me – similar to what you describe. Every little thing was used to to show management that I wasn’t right for the job – that SHE was the one who could do better. Somehow the fact that she did not get the promotion never really sunk in. Narcissism at it’s best. You can really only believe it if it happens to you.

  3. AndersonDarling*

    It really amazes me that this kind of conflict happens all the time but managers are clueless on how to handle it. If you have people working together, at some point two of them won’t get along. And sometimes it escalates into really bad places.
    This should be Managing 101.

    1. A.*

      Some managers hate conflict. They’ll run from it and ignore it until it goes away. The problem is it very rarely just goes away.

  4. Nerd Girl*

    My issue is when it’s one person on a team that’s the issue but management just describes it as a “personality conflict”. Simple math: 16 people on a team + 1 problem employee = 15 unhappy employees / a company that just wants everyone to get along = a team with employees who jump ship faster than you can say boo. Within 6 months of this problem employee joining the team 90% of the team either left the company or transferred out of the department. Meetings were called to determine the problem and everyone interviewed said that this person was the issue. She was rude, manipulative and lazy. As I was leaving the company the manager was asked to leave. You know who’s still there? Yep! That employee and my former co-workers who still work for the company say that the issues are still going on. Any team she’s on suddenly undergoes a high turnover which is blamed on a personality conflict. A close friend has worked there for over 20 years and calls her a sucubus, because the morale and energy just goes out of the team she’s on. I don’t understand it.

    1. Sarahnova*

      I have made a promise to myself to work, as much as possible, only with organisations that obey the No A**hole Rule. So much terribleness, from bullying to harassment to plain old lack of productivity, proceeds from managers not being willing to enforce the rule and deal with problem people.

    2. Mister Pickle™*

      Wow. I was just thinking: it would be interesting to compile a list of Toxic Employees such as this “succubus”, and start a consulting business where clients would pay me to place these people with the competition. Ie, Company ABC pays me to place Toxic Bob with their competitor Company XYZ.

      I don’t even think it would be illegal.

      1. Tax Nerd*

        First trademark symbols and footnotes, and now genius business ideas? We need to be drinking buddies. :)

        1. Mister Pickle*

          Thank you, but I recently received correspondence from a company I can’t name – a leading manufacturer of fermented deli treats, military optical systems, and adult toys – which insists that I cease and desist labeling my name with a trademark, as it dilutes the branding on their line of kosher dill pickles, as well as several lines of adult novelty items and a highly classified component of the Aegis Combat System. They assure me that if I remove the trademark character, I shall be in good standing WRT their company.

          Alas, my hopes and plans to market myself and the Mister Pickle brand are now dashed upon the rocks of despair.

    3. Purr purr purr*

      This is so true! I experienced something similar when a pathological liar joined our company. I wouldn’t say all the turnover was due to her but she was certainly a factor in people’s decisions, including my own. There’s only so much bullying, false rumours, gossip, etc. a person can take. She’s still at the company and pretty much everyone else that was there three years ago has now left. Just one person can be so bad for morale and the respective managers need to take the issue seriously.

    4. Fed Up*

      I am going through this right now at work. I’ve been there for a little over two years and the last year and a half has been a complete nightmare. In the last four months about 10 people have left our medium sized business. Key players who I got on very well with, were collaborative and some I even looked up to. These were the kind of people you want to have stick around. One person left suddenly after several years at the company – they had just had enough, walked out and never looked back.

      There is an individual in my department who is so toxic. His incompetence impacts everyone at the company and makes it very hard for everyone else, especially me, to do our jobs. I raised concerns about him and my boss agreed, she has issues with him all the time (well before I joined the company), in addition so did a couple of others around the office. So my boss went to his (and her) boss, repeatedly to try and work something out, and his boss basically told her she didn’t care and to never complain about him again to her. Eventually my boss approached HR, turns out so have several others… anyway he’s going through an internal review now but we had to go over my bosses boss head to get help on this issue which is completely unacceptable.

      I am really disappointed in my company for letting this go on for so long. I feel like I’ve been duped by this so-called “amazing” culture that has been pushed on me since I interviewed there. I hate that we cannot trust the head of our department to tackle personnel issues head on. Anyway, as you can imagine I have been looking elsewhere and hopefully something works out. It’s just not worth the stress and the hassle to me. They obviously don’t value me so why am I still there?

    5. Jamie*

      I also hate when something is presented as a “personality conflict” when it’s clearly one person.

      I’ve had 3 ‘personality conflicts’ in my career and with all of them every other higher performer had issues with the same people. Serious competency issues with all 3, slacking/laziness issues with 2, and 1 was flagrant abuse of company resources (caught sending someone from maintenance to his home to cut his lawn and assigning people to come and get him in the morning and drive him home end of day (on the clock) because of his DUI.)

      I’m not all that likeable, but the only people who have actively disliked me to the degree that I’ve known about it or any impact to work were those 3 above. And yes, I’m okay with incompetent fraudulent liars not wanting to be my Secret Santa.

      When the conflicts are due to competency issues, even without laziness or malice, the boss needs to take a hard look at whether he’s putting undue stress on high performers to carry those who just can’t meet the standard. Most reasonable people are cool with doing that for a learning curve on a new position, or if someone has something personal going on and they’re otherwise known for pulling their own weight – but it’s a recipe to lose your top people if you let it go indefinitely and letting it go far too long is a common mistake.

      And it is one of the harder things in management when you are handling it – because of course you need to respect the privacy of the under performer and not tell the people picking up the slack how they are being dealt with – but by the same token there is only so long people with options will hear “I’m dealing with it” not accompanied by change before they stop trusting you.

  5. Another Lauren*

    This article was great, thanks, Alison! I’ve been going through this with a coworker for about 8 months now. This person joined the team and felt he should be more senior than me (and therefore felt he should be made the lead on all of my projects). It is a long story why he seemed to feel this way, but ultimately when it didn’t play out the way he envisioned, he became increasingly negative and condescending towards me. I spoke with him about it directly (“Sometimes it seems like we are talking past one another, and I often feel that you take a very directive tone with me, even though we are colleagues and partners on this project. I’d like for us to get to a place where we are more collaborative – do you think this would be possible? Here is how I’ve been able to collaborate with others on the team”). But after 6 months, things still hadn’t improved, so I went to my manager and expressed my concerns (with specific examples). I asked my manager if I was contributing to the problems and what advice he might have for any changes in my own approach. While my manager was absolutely appropriate, he did indicate that I wasn’t the only person experiencing challenges, and based on everything I had told him, there wasn’t anything I should change.

    Shortly thereafter, things took a turn for the worse when I was made the lead on a desirable project. This coworker went from negative and condescending to outright hostile, intimidating, and antagonistic towards me. Thankfully, my manager did exactly what Alison recommends in this article. My manager came to me and basically said “I’ve spoken to Bob and expressed that his behavior towards you needs to be professional and courteous. If you see improvement from him in this area, I’d ask you to accept and encourage it. If you do not see a difference, please come to me.” Things have improved, though I admit I am still a bit wary of “Bob” – I feel like at any moment things will go back to how they were – but for now I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how well this approach worked, and I’ve been very grateful for my manager and his approach to the whole situation.

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