Danger! Enemies at work...

When relationships break down in the office it's not just bad for everyone's morale but for business, too. Jane Clarke identifies the common causes and suggests some solutions
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Some people believe that good working relationships are optional extras, but not essential to the success of the business. They're wrong. Evidence suggests that an office environment where people positively like, rather than merely tolerate, each other makes them not just happier and more satisfied at work, but also more productive and committed.

In the old days, it was less important to forge relationships across the company. Instead, companies tended to follow the example set by the British Cabinet, where a Minister's success is always achieved at the expense of colleagues. Now, however, as more organisations are trying to create a single powerful brand, interdependence is the new orthodoxy. People with a broad network, inside and outside the company, are the ones who get on. Finally, research has shown that we prefer to do business with people we like and respect. We find it easier to ask for what they want and more satisfying to return favours.

What Is A Good Working Relationship?

Contrary to popular belief, it's not about going down the pub and knowing the intimate details of other people's personal lives. It may include personal friendship but the keys are trust, respect, listening and empathy - and achieving a "win-win" situation where both parties are successful - instead of one person achieving success at the other's expense. And it's about understanding that although you and I may have completely different approaches, I appreciate the value of what you do and can use your skills to good effect.

What Happens When They Break Down?

Take an extreme example. If you have a chairman and a chief executive who can't bear to be in the same room as each other, what chance do you have of developing an effective corporate strategy? Of course it's impossible to keep a lid on this sort of situation. Employees, customers and other stakeholders will soon be talking about it, and it won't be long before the analysts and journalists pick up the story. As a result, confidence in the organisation plummets. Less dramatic, but equally damaging, are rifts between managers of departments or team leaders. Lack of co-operation, backbiting and blame are all symptoms. A "lose-lose" situation can quickly emerge: "I know that my team has failed, but it was only because those bastards in Personnel / Marketing / Sales didn't deliver - as usual". Others get sucked in and a huge amount of energy is wasted in gossiping, complaining, finger-pointing - in fact, doing everything except resolving the situation. When the people at the top don't get on, those who work for them sometimes refuse to be sucked into the dispute. Realising that inter-departmental co-operation is vital, they force the necessary links themselves, and resist following the bad example being set above. This leads to tactical co-operation, without strategic alignment: a company may be doing things right, but are they doing the right things? It also damages morale. The bosses involved in the dispute can become a laughing stock, notorious for their childish and unprofessional behaviour, as well as gaining a reputation for being poor teamworkers, and hence harming their career prospects. Poor personal relationships are also stressful - an additional source of anxiety in an already demanding work environment.

What Causes Breakdowns?

Like many people-related issues, diagnosis of the cause and formulation of a solution is not straightforward. There can be all sorts of reasons why people don't get on. For example:

Chemistry - I hate you.

Personality / style - I hate the way you do things.

Philosophy / values - I hate what you stand for.

Conflict of interest - I hate what you do because your gain is my loss.

Injury - I hate what you did.

Prejudice - I hate your type of person.

The treatment is different for each.


It's important for the people involved to realise the damage they're causing. Get them to do something together. Shared responsibility for an important project sometimes works wonders. Send them on a business trip. Time in each other's company can do the trick. The aim is to force them to recognise their interdependence, by creating shared objectives, a common enemy, or a situation in which they must sink or swim together.

Personality / Style

Organisations populated by clones lack the variety needed to be successful. Unfortunately, differences are not always easily tolerated. The important thing is to understand a particular difference, and then make sure you are exploiting it to realise its maximum potential. Where there's a clash of styles, both parties may need help in recognising the other's contribution. Give them feedback. Get them to give each other feedback. Psychometric tests can help here by making the situation feel less personal. Ultimately the individuals involved must learn how to handle each other, and how to interpret what is being said in an emotional language that is not their own.

Philosophy / Values

Is one person right and the other wrong? Sometimes, one of the protagonists may have a set of beliefs which are consistent with what the organisation is striving for, while the other is out of line. When this is the case, it's important to deal with the "offender" appropriately. More often both philosophies are acceptable to the company - just not to each other! Here you have to look for common ground. What is it that they both agree on? Can this form the basis of a productive working relationship? Point out to them that people do have different values: one person might throw heart and soul into getting to the top while the other wants a more balanced lifestyle. These differences need to be accommodated. Get them to think of ways in which they can plan and organise their work to get the most from each other.

Conflict of interest

Frequently, with this type of conflict, the issue involved is organisational, not personal. Project managers fighting for finance from a limited pot, or salespeople chasing a finite customer base are good examples. Change the system, improve the reward mechanism so that people benefit from co- operation instead of competing. If that's not possible, try to alter the way they perceive the situation. Remind them of the principle of you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours . Make them understand that co- operation is valued by the organisation - and ultimately rewarded - even if there is disappointment in the short-term. Then be true to your word.

But often, there is a true conflict that can't be removed by a change in the system. For example, the team responsible for maintaining computers will hanker after stability, while those who design systems will want change. Get them working together, focusing on higher level objectives. Remind them that they are both needed. And beware of false dilemmas - the black and white thinking which leads us to insist on "either / or" solutions, when nine times out of 10 compromise is possible.


One week everything was normal, the next two people are going out of their way to avoid dealing with each other. Neither has a good word to say about the other. Something has clearly happened. Injuries can be professional or personal, real or perceived. But whatever they are, you have to get to them quickly, otherwise the situation will deteriorate. There are nearly always two sides to the story. These need to be out in the open. Use an objective mediator. Let each person have their say and make the other listen. Summarise throughout. Then get them to come to some agreement on how to work together in the future. Make sure they know that you're going to follow this up. The ultimate aim is to get people to forgive and forget and ensure it doesn't happen again.


This is perhaps the most tricky area. Prejudice is both difficult to prove, and to deal with. But it's essential to be alert to this type of conflict or you could find yourself with a law suit on your hands. Explain how it appears to you, using examples to back up your case. Listen carefully. Make it clear that you won't tolerate discrimination on the grounds of anything other than ability. Remind people of the law and company policy on Equal Opportunities. Say that you will be seeking feedback to see how the situation develops - from them, from the person who has drawn your attention to the situation, and others who are in a position to observe what is happening. Then keep a close eye on things. The aim here is to create understanding and tolerance. It's not easy and it doesn't happen overnight.

What Are The Principles For Dealing With Breakdowns?

You can try to work around a conflict: it's sometimes possible for the people who are at loggerheads never have to deal with each other. However, this is a laborious and hazardous approach which leads to inefficiency and distraction. Innocent bystanders get involved, and the basic problems remain. Here are some rules of thumb for dealing with them:

Nip trouble in the bud. Don't allow problems to fester. The more history and baggage there is, the more difficult and painful it becomes to engineer a solution.

Use an honest broker. People work through their problems faster with third-party assistance. They may need help in getting the other person to listen or to understand how their own behaviour is coming across.

Don't rush to judgement. The blame is rarely all on one side, and it's important that someone understands both sides of the story.

Understand the cause. Don't waste time picking off symptoms, the issues will just re-emerge in a different way.

Make the remedy fit the cause. Choose an appropriate way of dealing with the problem.

Follow up regularly and over time. It's vital to prevent old hostilities resuming after a cease-fire has been declared

Jane Clarke is a director of the business psychology consultancy, Nicholson McBride.