Many years ago, I had my first opportunity of leading a team of folks. I was young, ambitious and eager to prove that I was the right person for the job. Naturally, when the team came to me with issues and impediments, I did all I could do to fix things as quickly and painlessly as possible. As I saw it, my job was to bring order and harmony to the team. The happier they were and the more focused they were, the better we all were. While I still believe that a leader is there primarily to serve his/her team, maturity and experience has changed my thoughts on what this really means, especially when it comes to dealing with conflict in the team.
I, like most people, spend more time than I’d care to admit, replaying past encounters and exchanges in my head. If only I’d handled X, Y or Z differently… If only I had said this instead of that… Rationally, I understand that in the grand scheme of things, most decisions of the past wouldn’t have resulted in any material differences today, and the only one lamenting these old decisions is me. That said, like Ebenezer Scrooge, there are some ghosts from the past which I can’t help avoid. This is the story of one of those ghosts, and the lesson it taught me regarding dealing with conflict in the team.
Fred (name has been changed to protect the innocent) was about the nicest guy you could imagine. He was an older gentleman, and had been with the company for quite a long time. His work ethic was unquestioned, and he had the respect and admiration from his peers as being someone who knew his job well. Fred was a regular at team happy hours, and he was always willing to help out fellow team members, even outside the hours of 9-5. To say that Fred was an ideal team member and teammate would be an understatement. Of course, this is what made matters more troubling when signs of unrest and discord started to rear their ugly head.
As we are apt to do when deadlines are pressing and work is time-sensitive, Fred and the rest of team were removed from their normal workspaces and sequestered into a shared team room. Change always creates new stresses, and for this team putting them together in a conference room for 8 hours a day did exactly that. People were a little more snarky and tempers were shorter, but it didn’t seem like anything they weren’t going to be able to handle until midway into the second week when one of the more outspoken team members came forward as “spokesperson” to tell me that the team was ready to stage a coup. In a time before reality TV and “Survivor” were a part of the pop culture vernacular, they were all ready to vote Fred off the island.
It seemed that since Day One of the team room arrangement, they had all been suffering through horrible odors emanating from Fred, although they never let him on to that fact. They had tried to be patient, assuming that even he would notice the smell and be forced to bathe, but they were wrong. The odor had grown so foul and distracting that they vowed to abandon Fred alone in the room unless something was done and soon.
Upon hearing all of this, my first thought was that I needed to fix the problem ASAP. Hygiene is a personal problem, and I couldn’t naturally expect the team to tell one of their peers that he had better start bathing, or else. No; this was a job for the manager. This was a job for me.
Check back on May 2 for a surprise “twist” in Part 2 of this series. How did I handle the situation? Retrospectively, how could things have gone better? And what happens when you aren’t managing team conflict effectively?