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Two of my employees were given a big task. They were responsible for splitting the work between them and coordinating the efforts and sub-tasks. The task seemed to be running smoothly for two weeks and none of them ever said anything is wrong. Not even in our private 1:1. Not even when asked specifically about the task and the work with the other person.

The other day, one of them contacted me saying that he can't work anymore with the other. They have conflicts, disagreements and he is experiencing a bad attitude from person B to him. While talking with person B, he said the same things about person A. That HE is experiencing a bad attitude from person A.

So, other than splitting them to work on different tasks, and letting each of them ventilate their feelings and emotions privately with me, what are the other things you would recommend to do and how to push them to work together, as part of a team, in the future?

Edit after reading some of the comments

  • Yes, these 2 peers worked together on a previous project and worked nicely together.
  • Yes, these 2 employees are able to take this big task, split it and coordinate the efforts.
  • Every one of them says the other one's approach is not professional, while he is trying to give the other as much respect and space
  • My main question here is not about how to get the project back to track, but how to help the employees overcome the conflict, and to be able to put them back on on the track of being able to work together.
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  • Had they never worked with each other before? or other coworkers before? Was it a very complicated task? Did one of them take a very weird or unproductive approach? You haven't given us enough information to judge by.
    – smci
    May 4 at 23:53
  • I think that it is a bit much to speak about self-organizing teams if there are just two people. For any decision, be it time estimate or technology, they can have two different answers and no way to reach a majority consensus. If you split their tasks for them, you'll create two one-man teams. You should think about having at least having three people in that team in the long-term, if the project is important enough. May 6 at 7:09
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    Not a useful answer, but next time you need to identify the issues way sooner and step in to manage :-). Are you sure none of them tried to warn you or raise the issue earlier? If so, try to find out why. Introspect.
    – Jeffrey
    May 6 at 12:06
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If my reports are in conflict, and unable to resolve it themselves, I'd step in and mediate the conflict.

More specifically, I'd call for a meeting, have each explain their point of view, moderate a discussion about which way is better for the project, and, in case they still can not find common ground, I'd make the decision.

I like this approach because:

  • Since they have the discussion in my presence, I can model and enforce professional standards of behavior.
  • Since they have to explain their point of view to me, the other side hears the argument again. This forced listening can sometimes improve mutual understanding :-)
  • I learn how and why the conflict got out of hand. This allows me to take further action if warranted, and informs my understanding of the capabilities of my reports, so I can make better use of their talents (and work around their weaknesses ...) in the future.
  • A decision is made; the conflict is not allowed to drag on. It is made by the person least familiar with the issue at hand, but it is made, it is made fairly, and after everyone was heard. And if the non-prevailing party can not live with that, at least they'll be angry at me rather their peer. I can live with that :-). After all, they'll probably be a bit more diplomatic towards their boss than their peer.

In summary, my goal would be to coach them to find common ground and resolve their conflict. Only if they fail to do so would I step in.

PS: I am somewhat appalled that all other answers see perpetual micromanagement as the only solution if people can not work together. That should be the solution of last resort, after having exhausted all other options, because switching management styles has impacts well beyond the resolution of interpersonal conflicts. For instance, when managing knowledge workers, routinely escalating decisions up the hierarchy will routinely escalate them to the person who knows the least about the decision, which tends to result in suboptimal decisions ...

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  • While I agree that coaching them is a more mature approach, OP hasn't told us exactly what the problem was that these two employees had with each other. Sometimes, when trust is severely broken, there is absolutely nothing that can be done to repair the relationship. They wouldn't even want to be in each other's presence. OP might also not have enough time to "exhaust all other options".
    – Julia
    May 5 at 5:53
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    Since OP describes the conflict as "disagreements" and "bad attitude", the conflict in question doesn't seem to be quite at the level of severely broken trust. But yes, I absolutely agree that not every conflict can be solved. However, I'd still find it worthwhile to try, if only to understand how this severe break of trust came to occur.
    – meriton
    May 5 at 6:16
  • @Julia Truly irreparable relationships should hopefully be the exception, not the norm. Anyone who lets things get that far is going to have a hard time in a professional environment, especially when the other person is on their team. I would definitely try this approach first if possible, as that can actually provide some professional growth to the employees by teaching them to coordinate themselves, whereas taking over the coordination only serves to solve the immediate problem of getting the work done while keeping them quite dependent on you. May 5 at 8:58
  • @Julia Trust being gone or not, they are still in the same team, still work together and are still professionals and have still the same requirements to adhere. Trust can be built up from scratch even after broken if the two spend enough time together, and this time work it out between them. Over time the bond will form again. They need to learn to openly tell each other what issue they have with the other, and they need to be able to listen and adjust not to provoke this issue again. Thats the lesson that the manager needs to teach them, since they were unable to do that themselves.
    – Chapz
    May 5 at 10:56
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    This has an added benefit that while the "kids" may be willing to yell at and fight with each other, they may be on better behavior when "mom" or "dad" are around. i.e. if the two of them are trying to resolve it all alone, they'll be angry and hurl insults. If the boss is present, they'll most likely be more professional so they don't "look bad" in front of the boss. Much more can be accomplished when the aggrieved parties are acting more maturely.
    – FreeMan
    May 5 at 16:52
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The task was running smoothly for two weeks and none of them ever said anything is wrong

No it wasn't running smoothly, neither have the organisational and soft skills to work in this manner. On top of that, problems took a fortnight to surface.

When doing projects like this where you're not sure about the participants, you delegate the overall strategy to just one of them and you keep your finger on the pulse. Too late for that now. But something to keep in mind for the future.

If I were you I would step in now and do the overall plan and delegation of responsibilities, once they have their own tasks to concentrate on they should settle down as they focus on their portions. Assuming they're professionals. The advantage of this although it is more work for you, is that their focus shifts from each other shortcomings, to proving they're the better professional.

There's no need to lay blame, just jump in and get the project running and responsibilities sorted. Then keep an eye on progress. Once they have a big successful project completed together they'll be fine next time. Your part will be forgotten probably.

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    I don't disagree with the general philosophy of this answer, however I think there's a portion here beyond the professional that needs direct management not indicated. You're right in that the manager should step in immediately regarding the tasks. The manager also needs to step in and mediate what has become a base level of professional and mutual disrespect. They will be ineffective together until they are led beyond nursing their own grudges. May 4 at 14:13
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    I agree with @JoelEtherton - they need to be told that self-management didn't work, so you'll do the strategies until they mature. But they also need to be told that when there are problems, it's important to talk about that as soon as they start to surface. Not to lay blame, but to get them resolved, so progress can start again. May 4 at 15:31
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    @thursdaysgeek they already know that it didn't work, no need to waste time and make people defensive, first priority is get the important project back on track, deal with the minor stuff later, but normally it just quietly deals with itself when things are working right. The issues are caused by frustration etc,. Take that away they have no fuel.
    – Kilisi
    May 4 at 17:29
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    The places where Ive worked are about the opposite of what you suggest. We self manage and decide who does what, and broadly how. Then it's the individual resposibility to do that the best way possible (and when a question arises, make sure it gets answered). On intervals you give do status update, which OP suggests he did. The problem here is IMO not the manager, but the two workers who apperantly cant admit friction before it becomes fire.
    – Martijn
    May 5 at 8:53
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As someone who thinks the "self managed team" method is the right one:

I disagree with that you should micro manage the workers and IMO you have done nothing (or at least not much) wrong in that regard. A manager who manages students/kids/young people should, but IMO there is a certain point where you should be able to trust your workers to be able to work self managed (and where workers need to step up their game, you're not 16 anymore).

In my experience most (smallish) teams should be able to self manage, that is a part of their job: Getting tasks done. You sit together and plan out how you're going to aproach it and then do it. A manager should tell you what has priority and discuss how that can be achieved realistically.

When a team member encounters a problem the team discusses it. When that is not sufficient (or one says A and the other B) THEN you go to manager, present the problem and ask which way to go. Part of 'getting the job done' is addressing issues before they're problems.

What IMO went wrong here is that in the meeting you've had with them they didn't tell you the friction until it got a fire, and I think THAT should be addressed. Maybe not at first as you now need to deescalate first, but they need to indicate stuff earlier. You're working with other people, sometimes they have another opinion, get used to it. When you cant figure it out together, you go to the manager, not have a 'fight' when it's too late.

What needs to happen now is setting up some rules to prevent this from escalating again. Why did this happen and what mechanics can be applied to keep it within bounds next time. Maybe some code styling rules? Maybe some architectural steps that need to be followed? IMO, often this kind of escalation results when rules can be interpreted too broadly.
And to be clear: I dont suggest micro manage them, dont create tiny rules for everything, just enough to prevent this kind of escalation.

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    What IMO went wrong here is that in the meeting you've had with them they didn't tell you the friction until it got a fire, and I think THAT should be addressed. Exactly. This is what allowed this to escalate into a serious problem.
    – hlovdal
    May 5 at 11:53
  • Teams self-managing themselves is not a given. The manager should go in that direction. But if that does not work, then it is time to take a step back and get the manager involved further. There is a reason for the manager role to exist, and sometime you can leave it to the employees.
    – SJuan76
    May 5 at 23:03
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    I agree but no amount of rules or lack of rules will prevent all escalations. Sometimes people disagree... sometimes they disagree strongly, sometimes they have a bad day, etc. You see the signs, address it, and get everyone back on track. If someone repeatedly proves to you that they cannot self-manage, then it's time to create some extra rules for them.
    – JeffC
    May 6 at 2:55
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They were responsible for splitting the work between them and coordinating the efforts and sub-tasks.

That's their manager's job. If you are their manager, you aren't doing your job. At a minimum, if one of them is more senior than the other, you should have tasked her with those responsibilities.

Now, sometimes you get lucky and your reports can self-manage with a minimal of oversight, but as a manager, you cannot assume that is the case. Your default cannot be to assume self-management and only intervene when required - it should be to assume that they need to be managed, and only start pulling back when those employees have shown they can take some of those responsibilities themselves.

I think the best way to salvage this is to apologize for failing to properly manage this project, and start from scratch, assigning work to each developer, and coordinating their efforts.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – motosubatsu
    May 5 at 12:14
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    "That's their manager's job. If you are their manager, you aren't doing your job." No, it's the manager's job to make sure things are getting done, not to micromanage every decision your reports make. If they have worked on projects before successfully, there's not much reason to think they can't this time. I prefer to set out the work and let people divide it amongst themselves. I still track how things are going and that work is getting done, who is doing what, etc. but let them show they are responsible until they show they aren't.
    – JeffC
    May 6 at 2:52
  • It's not the manager's job to micromanage, but the manager should review a plan at least briefly, check it makes sense (e.g. is work equally assigned based on estimates of how long each task will take), and approve it. Otherwise you're opening yourself up to all kinds of crap.
    – Stuart F
    May 17 at 19:27
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Although you never want to micro-manage I think ideally as others have mentioned there did need to be more leadership on your part because as you've said you did give them a big task which they were to handle themselves. Maybe I am mistaken but you seem to view your role as being more reactionary as proactive, in that you are there to solve any issues which come up in the course of them doing their jobs.

This all comes down to management style. The risk with that as you've seen is that the project going down a track which is not ideal, and you react too late. Also employees will get the sense that your involvement is a failure on their parts, and will bias to telling you everything is fine, when it wasn't. People in general aren't happy working with each other one day and then not the next, this was a deterioration over time.

Even now I could be mistaken, you would prefer they simply vent their feelings to you and get back to work, requiring minimal intervention. Generally damaged working relationships require more than just venting to a manager. To ease the tension I would consider assuming some responsibility for the current situation, this will help get them off each others throats. Reset the project, don't only delegate, but be involved in the planning of the work and get them to agree to processes they will both follow to minimize conflict. Have more meaningful progress checkins assessing the work done, you should be able to see red-flags of a relationship break down in these check-ins. That you were totally blind-sided by this situation is not good, and you need to figure out how that happened,

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The rest of the answers here have focused on getting your colleagues to work well together, but so far every one of them have missed an essential point:

The task seemed to be running smoothly for two weeks and none of them ever said anything is wrong. Not even in our private 1:1. Not even when asked specifically about the task and the work with the other person.

I find their lack of faith disturbing.

Obviously you want to deal with the most urgent problem (them not being able to work together), but there's another deeper issue that you need to address going forward:

Your colleagues did not trust you enough to confide their concerns. Either to request advice or intervention. That's something that you, as their manager, are responsible for. Have you violated their trust in the past? It seems like you should have had enough time here to demonstrate your trustworthiness to them.

Once you resolve their issues with each other, that's a problem that you also need to work on between yourself and each of your colleagues. Obviously you don't want them to come running to you with every small problem to have you fix it, but you do want them to be able to say, "I've had some disagreements with how to run this project, and I resolved them this way" or "we still haven't resolved them" or... whatever.


As a side note - if everything really was running well and they were getting along, it's possible that there was an unrelated experience that triggered their inability to get along. But that seems like it would be more of a one-way disagreement at that point.

Do note that the way that you handle this conflict will have longer lasting effects -- if you can resolve things well, then it will build your trust not just with these colleagues, but they will also share their experiences with their colleagues who may be willing to come to you in the future.

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It might help to remind them that they don't need to be friends in order to work with each other (i.e. concentrate on the work, not the relationship).

If they're both blaming each other for the conflict, then suggest that they both CC (or BCC) you on emails between the two (so that you can gauge the response from their opponent) or ask them to show you the chat transcript.

Alternatively, you can get them to work under a Project Manager or Business Analyst who will coordinate the sub-tasks accordingly. (The implication being that if you can't trust them to work together as adults....)

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    There’s a difference between being “friends” and being unable to agree on the appropriate division of work and direction for a project. The problem is that neither has the power to make a decision if there is a disagreement and for some reason they didn’t feel they could involve their manager until far too late.
    – ColleenV
    May 4 at 14:24
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    "the buck stops here". there's one and only one person to "blame" in this situation - the manager. (or perhaps, the manager's manager.)
    – Fattie
    May 4 at 14:46
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"_____ has a bad attitude" is not a resolvable conflict. You simply can't negotiate about attitudes, beliefs, or emotions because these are not voluntary behaviors. People can't simply decide to stop having a certain attitude or emotion.

That being said, there must be some specific behaviors that make each person think that the other person has a bad attitude - find out what those behaviors are. Ask each person to clearly define the issue in terms of what voluntary, observable behaviors they want the other person to change.

Also be sure to find out what their interests are - make sure that the discussion doesn't descend into positional bargaining. (Getting to Yes by Ury and Fisher is an excellent resource on this).

Also, venting does not lead to conflict resolution, it just makes you angrier. See, for example, this article: so-called "catharsis" just makes you even angrier.

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