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I recently became the line manager for a team of engineers, which includes a two-people subteam based in a different location (very far away from here, I haven't had a chance to visit yet, but it's something I'm planning to do).

The two people in this subteam, Alice and Bob, don't really get along well, in particular, Alice doesn't like Bob.

The relationship that makes up this situation is summarized by:

  • Alice is senior to Bob in terms of years at the company, but not age

  • Alice and Bob can't really communicate and pretty much ignore each other

  • Alice openly expresses her dislike for Bob (to me, the rest of the team, and sometimes customers)

  • Alice said she tried to fix this situation with Bob (not sure how) but it's now too late and she can't do anything about it

How can I, as their (remote) line manager, try to fix this mess?

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    Apart from Alice expressing her dislike, is there an actual issue here? Are they able to work together? – Gregory Currie Aug 19 at 7:16
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    Meaning they have trouble completing their work? They don't work as fast as they could? They don't do code reviews properly? – Gregory Currie Aug 19 at 7:25
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    Is there anyone else besides these two working remotely from that location that can either provide more information or has some measure of authority and can act a proxy for you? – Anketam Aug 19 at 19:39
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    What does Bob have to say? If this is the entirety of the situation, then Alice needs to be shown the door. However, my spidey-sense tells me there's more. Much more. – Wesley Long Aug 19 at 21:02
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    There is almost certainly more to this issue than the summary. What does Bob say? Have you ever talked to Bob? If Alice says she tried to fix the situation and failed, it is reasonable to ask what the situation and fix were. Are you sure that neither is engaged in abusive behavior towards the other? – trognanders Aug 20 at 0:31
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Alice openly expresses her dislike for Bob (to me, the rest of the team, and sometimes customers)

Expressing dislike of a teammate to a customer is such an egregious violation of the norms of professional behavior that I'd warn her never to do that again, and fire her if she did so.

  • 41
    And the warning should be in writing. ( Not just verbal ) – Mister Positive Aug 19 at 13:13
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    The warning should be done with HR involved as well, to make sure the disciplinary process (if any) is correctly followed. – Solar Mike Aug 19 at 14:59
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    While I agree with this, it needs to be very clear that the discipline is explicitly and specifically regarding expressing this dislike to a customer. In addition, the reason of the dislike needs to be explored, at least necessary to rule out various possible legal landmines for the company (e.g. past sexual harassment, etc.). If there are any hints in the direction of any potential legal landmines, then HR needs to be involved. – Makyen Aug 19 at 16:49
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    while this answer may address the problem of alice bad-mouthing bob to customers, it won't do anything to address the underlying conflict between alice and bob and the resulting fallout in team productivity. – Woodrow Barlow Aug 19 at 19:51
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    While I agree with this, it's generally not cool to go around to teammates badmouthing other employees either. – JeffC Aug 19 at 21:12
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There is nothing wrong with two employees not liking each other, provided they conduct themselves in a professional manner.

For instance, it is very bad that Alice tells others that she does not like Bob. That is unprofessional and unacceptable.

Regardless of how they feel about each other, as a manager you need to have an expectation that they communicate effectively when they need to.

Your job isn't to get to the bottom of their dislike and act as a relationship counsellor. Two people cannot be made to like each other.

If you think the situation could lead to such problems, you can get on the front foot and indicate to them that they should make efforts to improve the working relationship, and that you won't tolerate unprofessional behaviour.

If one of them has a specific grievance, they should bring that up professionally with the other, and if that does not work, the correct course of action is for them to raise it with you. You should then act on the merits of that complaint and in line with your company's HR policy.

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    "You[sic] job isn't to get to the bottom of their dislike" I couldn't disagree more. It is always a good idea for a manager to dig for underlying problems where reasonable. There would be a huge difference if Alice disliked Bob because he likes pop music than say, if he was bullying or harassing her. – TheGirlHasNoName Aug 19 at 16:31
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    @bruglesco I disagree with your disagreement ;) Obviously if there is something HR-worthy going on, that's an issue that should be immediately resolved. However, there's no indication that that's the case here. If you start probing for why there's animosity, you could quite easily find yourself in a position wherein your reports expect you to "take sides." In short, you only need to know enough that there's no liability being created for the company. Anything more is between them, and that's where it should stay. – bvoyelr Aug 19 at 18:01
  • @bruglesco As I said, if there is a specific grievance, that should be dealt with. – Gregory Currie Aug 20 at 2:04
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    People are not machines. You can’t just order someone to work well together with someone they don’t like [Technically you can order them, but don’t expect it to work]. A good manager would try to make them solve the underlying issue or at least work around the problem by assigning them to different projects. – Michael Aug 20 at 7:06
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    @GregoryCurrie: A professional engineer who doesn’t get along with his/her colleagues and is generally unhappy with his/her job is going to perform poorly and search for job opportunities elsewhere. As a manager you don’t want such a toxic environment. – Michael Aug 20 at 9:04
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Go over there, don't try to fix it by calls. Get the three of you in a room. Explain the situation as you experience it. Explain the consequences of their behavior towards customers, team performance and their professional advance.

Listen to their side of the story, do not judge them. Ask them how they think the situation can improve and what they think is needed to change the situation. Facilitate in those needs.

Have a regular follow-up on how they work together. If it improves, compliment them, if not: tell them what kind of behavior you expect and what they can benefit from it.

For you: this is the burden of being a line manager, lots of energy can go to this kind of issue. Don't be a soft healer for it creates rotting wounds, but don't go too hard, and don't take it personally.

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    It's also a good example of why being a line manager "very far away from here" is very far away from ideal – Lightness Races in Orbit Aug 19 at 17:08
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    "Alice, how can we improve the situation? Now that I have put an official warning in your HR file for talking to clients about Bob." – HenryM Aug 19 at 17:51
  • @HenryM Yeah... sucks to be an adult... but now that Alice has proven that she can't be, it was addressed. It sounds like Alice is the ongoing problem. Getting to the bottom of how that started, if her explanation is even reasonable (given her lack of professionalism already displayed), and see if you can her to see reason and/or take care of whatever else is going on. Maybe Bob was a jerk once and never apologized... suggesting that he do so might start to mend the relationship or at least keep it from going much further down a bad path. – JeffC Aug 19 at 21:10
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I understand your concerns and seems like you are reasonable right about doing something about the situation.

As others mentioned before, you as a manager really can't make two people like each other, but it is your job to make them both work as a team and also don't badmouth each other to other people.

The idea is straight-forward, but the execution really isn't. I think the best course of action is to make sure to both parties that it is okay to have differences between team members, but it is not okay to let if affect the team results. This means that you have to make to them that they need to be able to work with each other with a reasonable respect, and also to let them know that it is not acceptable to badmouth anyone about your relantionship problems.

You don't need to make it personal, you don't need put any of them on an unconfortable position and also don't need to make them like each other. Your only job is to make your team run fine and that there is no one badmouthing people behind everyone's back.

Also, on a long term, things probably won't get any better, trying to realocate the position of one of them is also not a bad idea.

0

How can I, as their (remote) line manager, try to fix this mess?

Unless there is an issue with projects not being completed by either Bob, Alice, or both ( if they are supposed to be working together ) then there is nothing to fix.

As soon as there is an issue with projects or tasks being stalled or not completed, you need to identify the bottleneck and address it accordingly.

If either individual is not communicating with the other on work related matters ( whether it is initiating communication or replying to communication ), you need to speak with that individual. Let them know that communication is essential, regardless of their feelings towards the other individual. Don't get bogged down in any details of why they don't like each other because it ultimately doesn't matter. Give them a warning for the first offense and discipline them for each subsequent offense to the extent that you are allowed to do so.

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    Even if there is no issue with the projects, Alice and Bob can’t be happy about working with each other. I’d expect one of them to quit sooner or later. Which is not good, even if viewed from a completely unemotional management perspective. – Michael Aug 20 at 7:09
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Regardless of how they feel about each other, as a manager you need to have an expectation that they communicate effectively when they need to.

Adding to Gregory Currie's answer I would ask who they were being tasked by (set objectives). If they are being tasked by someone in your local office it may be easier to organise things so they are working on separate projects/pieces of work where they don't need to communicate.

If they are being tasked at the remote location or/and or working towards a common goal which is difficult to change it may be acceptable to leave the situation as it is so long as they continue to communicate effectively when they need to (as other replies have pointed out.)

If Alice's behavior continues and she continues to badmouth Bob you will need to consider recalling Alice from the remote location back to your local office. If this is not possible you may need to consider making a change in personnel in other ways as other answers have suggested.

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What nobody mentioned here so far, start looking for replacements for both of them! Might be they abandon the ship sooner than later.

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    Which is why their dispute should be solved before either of them quits. – Michael Aug 20 at 7:10

protected by Mister Positive Aug 20 at 11:14

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