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I recently acquired a team that management is aware has interpersonal problems. There are two coworkers that do not even talk to each other, either professionally or personally. The previous supervisor got these two to a mediator, but it didn’t seem to help. From what I’ve heard, coworker A refuses to acknowledge or talk to coworker B. Coworker B has even tried to make amends and even say hello, but coworker A said she doesn’t need to say hello or greet her.

My manager — and the other managers — are aware of this problem, but no action has been taken. These coworkers don’t need to communicate on a day-to-day basis, but I feel that having this sort of tension within the team is not reflective of an effective and professional team. I obviously cannot force them to talk to each other, but is there anything I can do to make the situation better? I work in government, and these people have been working here for more than 20 years, on the same team for the past seven, and not talking for the past few, so it’s a challenging situation to deal with.

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    Does the situation affect their work or the teams work? That would be different from standing back, looking at the team and saying "this isn't working because these two don't like each other." If the team can put out it's 100% despite the tensions, it's an effective and professional team. – CKM May 26 '16 at 16:31
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    Important question: You say that Coworker A refuses to acknowledge or talk to coworker B. Do they still do their job and any professional communication needed? – David K May 26 '16 at 16:31
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    Ask A to communicate something job-related to B. If she refuses then surely that's grounds for dismissal. – TheMathemagician May 26 '16 at 17:07
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    Given that you mentioned "government", I take it firing or reassigning A is out of the question? If not, I'd seriously consider giving one final warning before firing A. Adults who act like kindergartners don't belong in a well-run workplace. That said, for all we know there really is more at play here than just dislike so I'd recommend getting to the bottom of this first. – Lilienthal May 26 '16 at 17:41
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    The perfect solution would be to get rid of the one who isn't even making an effort, or at least transfer her out. – AndreiROM May 26 '16 at 17:49
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Change your expectations.

If I'm reading your question correctly, A doesn't like B and hasn't for 20+ years. There is no requirement for them to communicate on a regular basis.

The chances of you changing this are very close to zero.

It would be far wiser to accept the situation as it is and manage accordingly. If possible, arrange work assignments so they have as little contact as reasonably possible (they shouldn't get preferential treatment as such but the more they stay apart the better for everyone else).

Don't try to make them like each other - it won't happen.

If the interpersonal problems escalate into unacceptable behavior you'll have to take the same disciplinary steps you'd take with anyone else. Since they've been working in the same office for 20+ years, I assume this is not happening.

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    There is a big difference between 'liking each other' and 'learning to treat each other civilly' – DJClayworth May 26 '16 at 16:48
  • They have not been talking to each other for the past two years, even professionally. – JohnC May 26 '16 at 17:34
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    @DJClayworth I'll take a guess that the situation resulted because (at least) one of them learned that treating the other person civilly was not worth the effort. If people reach this stage, there's no point in trying to fix things between them. – Peter May 26 '16 at 18:28
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    @Peter Against this is "Coworker B has even tried to make amends and even say hello". It's very rare that the person trying to make amends is the jerk. – DJClayworth May 26 '16 at 19:11
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    @DJClayworth that depends whether the "making amends" is genuine or merely face value/point scoring. "The Jerk" will often make a public show of being civil/friendly, but without knowing what the original disagreement was, and the other interactions, it's impossible for anyone else to really understand what's happening/happened and whether that civility is enough to leave past events behind. At the end of the day, to some people, some actions are simply unforgivable. – Jon Story May 27 '16 at 14:57
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Based on the fact that they do not communicate professionally either, then you need to escalate things. Since you work for the government, you cannot simply fire coworker A (who appears to be the problem). You need to put this in writing as an official matter on their employment record. If they cannot take it upon themselves to even communicate professionally with someone, then they need to make some changes. If they refuse to comply put them on a performance improvement plan.

Whatever the steps are that you need to take to give you the ability to fire this person, do it. Ask your manager about the proper steps to take. You are their manager, and you need to show some authority, otherwise this will never get better. Just because they have been here 20+ years does not mean they are above reproach. If they are not doing their job, then they need to shape up, or ship out.

  • Agree, Government workers can be and are fired. It just takes someone willing to properly go through all the steps. People often assume firing isn't available as a choice when managing government workers but it is. Every government agency I worked for fired people. – HLGEM Oct 11 '16 at 15:26
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Bit long for a comment, so posting this as an answer... You may find this piece enlightening:

http://www.simplypsychology.org/robbers-cave.html

It basically summarizes a famous social psychology experiment. Researchers led by Muzafer Sherif split a group of children in two, and then made the two groups compete against each other and subsequently cooperate with one another. The researchers measured what each group thought of the other at the start and after each phase. The finding was that groups that compete with one another tend to build negative views of each other, and groups who cooperate with each other tend to build positive ones.

Research on bias building and stereotyping suggests a mostly similar pattern at the individual level: competition and distinction (other group/team) tends to breed negative views, while cooperation and similarity (same group/team) tends to breed positive ones.

Anyway, getting back to your problem: making do with the situation the best you can is an option which is already covered at length in other answers.

But if you decide you can't make do with that, you could also try to de-escalate it: come up with a short task where the two are basically forced to cooperate in order to be successful. Assign the task in a meeting where they're both present in passing, while making how they'll need each other's help explicit.

If they object strongly, assert your authority and invite them to get over their differences sooner rather than later. One or both may resent you for it, but stand firm.

Rinse and repeat until they're on hello terms or better. Upon successfully breaking the ice, try to set the stage to get the two around a coffee.

Be wary of tasks where one's output depends on the other's but not the other way around. Those will end up breeding thoughts like "can't move forward because of my idiot colleague". What you want are tasks where they basically cannot move forward without actually talking and working together. The latter should be promoting thoughts more along the lines of "sigh, OK, it'll just be a bad pill to swallow and I can resume with not speaking with this bozo". Give them enough of the latter, and they'll eventually be thinking "mm, this person isn't so bad after all" - one small step at the time.

It may be that the situation has deteriorated to a point where it's borderline impossible to recover from, of course. But those situations are actually rare in practice. What counts in reality is setting the right pace: too big a step will breed irritation and possibly the opposite of what you're looking for. Much like how the Chinese brainwashed US POWs during the Korea war, you want to pace things a small step at the time, with as symbolic a reward as you can get away with (ideally none at all beyond telling them they did great work). You want them to internalize the reasons for cooperating - you won't get far if they get the impression they're doing it because it's an order.

Aside: it may be that one hates the other owing to severe incompetence or prior personal injury. Perhaps one made the other look really bad one day or something, or perhaps looks like or is related to someone who did? The source of the problem may eventually come to your attention. If the situation really calls for it, raise it upfront (dive both feet in) and assert that the time has come to move on. (Like a parent would do with children who are fighting with each other over nonsense, really; but only if the situation really calls for it.)

  • Beware you are not dealing with kids. It would be interesting to know why do they not talk. I have had people that went far and beyond their incompetence and tried to sabotage my work – Rui F Ribeiro Oct 14 '16 at 4:10
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Has any of the two a similar track record with other team members or is one of the two the definitive block in resolving the issue and removing this person does not derail anything? -> remove from team.

If not and both contribute equally: Remove the one which is easier to replace.

Remark: remove from team does not mean "fire". Sometimes thing don't work out and if there is a clear behavioral issue involved the solution which hurts everybody the least is to let somebody switch the project or the department. The level of expertise or urgency needs to be very high to tolerate such problems for more than a short time.

It is my opinion that mediation should already be the exception for adult professionals.

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It doesn't do to give up on someone because the situation's not ideal.

Great relationships aren't great because they have no problems. They're great because both people care enough about the other person to find a way to make it work.

The two people in question will undoubtably care about each other in some capacity, and this is usually where there is common ground between them.

Encouraging the colleagues to work together as equals can be a good way to nurture their positive feelings towards each other.

Sadly, the concept of managing people sounds like it is still an issue at your place of work.

Relying on managers to do any more than look after their own interests i.e. promoting the headless worker scenario is the key reason why management of an employee should be the responsibility of that employee and that employee alone.

This limits you to complaining to your manager until they do something about it.

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