The team had been locked in a room for 8 hours with long-time respected teammate, Fred, who now had a horrifying funk emanating from his body that made nose hairs curl. How did I handle the situation?
Dutifully and reluctantly, I called Fred into a meeting room and explained that there had been anonymous complaints from the team about how his smell was offensive and distracting to the rest of the team. Naturally, Fred was a little taken aback. Here he was just 30 minutes ago, joking around and working with his team and friends, and now he was hearing how these same people were ready to kick him to the curb because they thought that he didn’t know what a shower and a bar of soap looked like. Fred acknowledged that there was truth in the matter of the odor, but not for the reasons that everyone else thought. Contrary to popular opinion, Fred had not forgotten how to shower. His team — people with whom he had been friends for years — so quickly assumed that was the only logical answer, and this fact hurt him deeply. Why hadn’t anyone from the team brought this up to him directly? Why didn’t anyone think to ask if everything was OK, rather than assume the worst? As Fred explained, he had recently developed an infection in his left foot and try as he might, it just wasn’t healing. While he freely acknowledged that he shouldn’t have let the situation go unchecked for as long as he did, he was deeply troubled by how quickly his team had turned on him, and how two-faced his supposed friends now seemed to be.
Shortly afterward, Fred did consult a medical professional for his foot, and as a result was diagnosed with Advanced Type 2 Diabetes. And while Fred had to have his foot amputated to just below the knee, he was fortunate that the consequences were not worse. After a few months of recovery and rehabilitation Fred was back on his feet foot. He did eventually return back to work, but his relationship with his former friends was never the same. He was as cordial, polite and hard working as ever, but it was clear that a new dynamic had emerged. The people he had once considered his trusted friends were now only co-workers and teammates.
While I don’t regret having this conversation with Fred (I believe it forced him into seeking help probably a little sooner than he would have otherwise), I do regret how I had the conversation. As a leader of a team it’s not my job to bring order and harmony to the team, but rather to help the team bring order and harmony to the team. I should have never allowed the team to lodge what was essentially an anonymous complaint about one of their own, especially when that complaint was so out of character. Instead of immediately going into fix-it mode, I should have reminded the team that the situation they were describing was pretty out of character and encouraged them to discuss this directly with Fred, just as they would with any of their other friend. If that would have still proven too uncomfortable, then I should have offered to facilitate the discussion with all the team members present.
No matter how you approach it, the discussion itself would have been uncomfortable, but it didn’t have to be alienating. With just a slight change in approach, Fred’s dignity would have been preserved; the team would have learned an important lesson in self-management; and otherwise long-term work friendships could have been preserved.
As leaders, our tendency is to treat conflict as just another impediment — something that needs to be dealt with post haste. Although team conflict can be distracting and impeding, it’s far too complicated to be simply managed away like other impediments. Conflict can be a rich source of inspiration and a valuable learning lesson for a team. Managing team conflict almost always challenges and involves people’s beliefs, personalities and feelings. It’s hard for people to grow without healthy retrospection on who we are, how we tick and how we work with others.
So next time, before you try donning your cape and rushing to the rescue to put out the next team conflict fire, remember Fred’s foot and say no to anonymous complaints. Insist that the whole team be part of solution.