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I've recently accepted a position with a small, 25-person company as their technical director. I am to work closely with the creative director (CD) and the digital project manager (PM) in scoping, planning, and executing all of our online business. So far, I have been able to establish trust and a good working relationship with both CD and PM. Both are capable colleagues in their own respects.

It turns out that these two colleagues do not work well together. CD doesn't like PM, is trying to push PM into another role with the company, and hire a new project manager. PM is close with the owner and is not going anywhere. PM is resentful of CD for this, but is too "nice" to confront CD and hold a frank discussion about their working dynamic.

Both PM and CD have come to me privately, separately and asked for my help in dealing with the other. My job is dependent on these two colleagues being able to work together and so I feel obliged to help move the three of us into a better direction. Is there something that I can do or say to help these colleagues work together?

  • I don't think three any general answer for that, other than "keep your resume up to date, so you're ready if/when this crashes the company". – keshlam Mar 3 '16 at 23:39
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    Posting here since it's "barely an answer" but reading: Crucial Conversations and Crucial Accountability would help them both. I've listened to both as audiobooks and the insights on difficult coworkers are really great. – Baronz Mar 4 '16 at 0:58
  • Who is their line manager? Is there an HR dept? – user29055 Mar 4 '16 at 9:40
  • I'm assuming that all three of you are at the same level in the company hierarchy, i.e. you all three report to the owner/CEO.. can you confirm or clarify this? – Carson63000 Mar 4 '16 at 11:22
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What you have is a conflict; what you are proposing is conflict resolution.

You have a number of options for resolving the conflict:

  • Don't. If the conflict is not damaging performance or creating a work health and safety issue then you don't have to resolve it.

  • The Manager. Do what you have been asked to do by the owner of the company and the two people involved - manage. Disabuse the CD of their fantasy - explain that the PM is not going anywhere and that its not professional to keep angling for it.

  • The Mediator. Mediation is a difficult and specific skill set - I know because I am a qualified mediator. Done well it can serve to ventilate the issues and allow the parties to reach their own solutions on how to work together. Done poorly it can make things much, much worse. A good mediation always requires a disinterested mediator and by disinterested I mean someone who does not care if the conflict is resolved; only that it is mediated well. Unless you are going to engage a professional mediator I would stay well away from it.

  • The Autocrat. Call them both into the office and say "I understand you don't like each other. I don't care. Play nice together or I'll replace both of you. Now, f*&k off!" This is the standard approach in some industries like construction and mining; those industries generally don't have creative directors so maybe its not appropriate for your industry.

  • What's the answer? Everything? It's a small business and these are 3 important people so it is very high impact. I don't mind what you have but it isn't an answer - it is try everything or do nothing. – blankip Mar 4 '16 at 18:20
  • @blankip I have outlined reasonable options. These do not amount to "everything". For example, the OP could quit or shoot the PM. Nor do I suggest trying everything - pick one and try that, which one you pick depends on more details of the personalities involved and the skill set of the OP than we know.. – Dale M Jun 2 '17 at 7:34
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Looks like you get to play marriage counselor. What you need to do is do what a good marriage counselor does.

You meet with each person individually, maybe a few times. Figure out what they feel are the pros/cons/issues in their relationship with the other. Focus on the pros and make them come up with these or even nudge them to some pros.

After you get their views down and form a plan you all three need to meet and lay it out on the table. Not getting along is one thing, but going behind each others back and bottling up issues in a small team is a cancer.

You need to act as a mediator. Let them know their status at the company and how important it is. And focus on the strengths of each. Let them also go over their grievances. Make sure they aren't calling each other names or something over the top but let them get it out.

This may take more than a few sessions and I might plan the first session with them as a couple hours and at the end of day. I have had to do this on a couple of occasions. I have only one rule with the people involved. Whatever they bring up in the room stays in the room.

If both of these employees bring something good to the table you can brainwash that stuff into their heads. If one of them has a master plan of hiring a pal or buddy to help you can get that our of their head. The goal isn't that everyone is holding hands, it is that there is a mutual trust. Run these sessions as many times as you need until you trust the issue is mostly solved.

Another approach I have used is to start out the counseling and if it starts going bad try to work in the worst possible person at the company I can feasibly get into the equation - I often ask for one of our general PMs. Make this person run some PM duties for one or both people having issues. Let them see that the grass is not always greener. Let them see the mountain of PM emails following up about off topic things. Soon they will be complaining to each other about the PM and not worrying about their relationship issues. And if you want to go evil genius, drop some subtle hints that this person's name is being thrown around to advance so they have more of a role in the other two's projects.

  • I think being part of the company, you're more than a 3rd party counselor. You are actually part of the family, so there should be other sources you can access if necessary. – Nelson Mar 4 '16 at 7:22
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I wouldn't get involved. I wouldn't say anything bad about either to the other, but I would stick to my job rather get involved in their issue. If pressed that's exactly what I would say.

'Sorry mate, you need to deal with that yourself. He/she is a reasonable chap, I'm sure you can work something out.'

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