Company offices can readily turn into interpersonal battlegrounds. Verbal grenades explode one after the other – undercutting, demeaning, belittling, attacking, insulting, and destroying team members. In consequence, work does not get done and forward progress stalls, damaging the business. How does this happen? Particularly when the people involved are capable, competent individuals?
An antagonistic culture typically arises when a senior executive is unwilling to crisply address the toxic relationships on his or her team. For example, take a situation where two members of a leadership team are constantly at odds with one another – perhaps due to a personality clash or differing strategic approaches. Rather than treat one another professionally, they choose to engage in negative behaviors. The CEO knows what is happening but does nothing to stop it. When the teams of these two adversaries see dysfunctionality being tolerated, they copy those negative behaviors toward each other. Now, the CEO has two leaders and both their teams lobbing grenades at one another.
When dysfunctionality exists on your team or in your company, you as a leader need to take decisive action. You can’t kick the can down the road and hope that people will fix the relationship themselves. Avoiding the issue simply propagates conflict because it trains people that toxicity is okay.
But toxicity is not okay. That is why it is essential that you:
1. Be alert to and aware of the true nature of the working relationships among your team members. Don’t be in denial about what is really going on. Ask questions and get input from the people involved so that you have a good grasp of all the facts.
2. Be willing to address dysfunctional relationships. You need to provide feedback so the people involved understand that what they are doing is counterproductive, unfair to each other, and impacting the organization.
3. Be specific about what they are going to do differently to improve the health of their working relationship. We have seen plenty of bosses who say, “You guys need to fix this!” and stomp out of the room. For a rare subset of people, that works. Most people, however, will hear that and think, “Right – the other person needs to get his/her act together!” Instead, you need to make it clear that both parties have to take steps toward each other to resolve the conflict.
4. Be intentional about following up. If you provide feedback and create an action plan but don’t follow up, you’ve made it to the five-yard line, but haven’t gotten the touchdown. There is a message that you drive home by checking in: “This really matters. I expect it to change. I expect you to change.”
Follow these four guidelines without delay at the first sign of negative or dysfunctional behavior – because toxicity is never okay.