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Case Study: Manager's Non-Action

Situation: Manager's poor relationship with one difficult employee goes unaddressed and mushrooms into team-wide discontent and disillusionment. There are various ways this can happen. We'll give one scenario.

Our case begins rather simply with an employee who has performed satisfactorily in one position then moves to another. In the new position, the employee's performance is irregular, relationships with co-workers are poor, and the employee-to-manager relationship is, at times, disrespectful. Months pass with the manager being annoyed with the employee over various issues — resistance to change, not following directions, and poor attendance, but not followed by any direct action to address the performance problems. Instead, the manager avoids the real issues fearing she might be unfair or too picky. The issues continue while the manager quietly remains frustrated and second-guesses herself instead of taking action. Meanwhile, long-term employees become resentful and give minimum effort. New employees question their decision to have joined the team and begin looking for new jobs. Now, the manager has a problem much more serious than having to deal with a difficult employee. The team is now focused on the manager's failure as a leader, expectations that appear capricious and unfair, and sinking morale — each threatening to derail the whole team.

How could a manager get in this predicament? Very likely, the manager entered the job without being fully prepared to handle the challenges that were inevitably going to occur. In this case, the manager fell into the trap of avoiding situations that were emotionally distressing with the hope they would "go away" or "get better." Instead, problems went underground temporarily only to reappear as more serious problems.

Getting out of this situation is rough, but possible. The manager needs to do a combination of things to turn the situation around.

  • Become conflict competent as a leader and gain the confidence to engage in conflict constructively as opposed to falling into patterns of avoidance.
  • Provide a vision for team culture including interaction and performance standards and give the support needed for employees to succeed.
  • Reinforce constructive behaviors such as showing an interest in hearing others' opinions, open communication, creation of new ideas, and reaching out to each other through rewards and recognition.
  • Model knowledge and behaviors of conflict competency for the team to follow.

The obvious advice is don't get in this situation in the first place — arm yourself and others in your organization with conflict management skills before the team takes an unproductive detour.

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