Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Caught Between Clashing Personalities

Dear Crucial Skills,

I am caught in the middle of a situation with two difficult employees. One of the employees with an animated temperament feels like she can’t talk to her overly-sensitive coworker. Every time she brings up crucial issues, her coworker either denies them or cries. The ‘sensitive’ coworker rarely comes to me with her issues because she thinks they’re too small and I’m too busy to care.

I try to give each of them the time and attention they need, but after two years of refereeing, I’m exhausted. These employees make a really strong team in terms of their knowledge and skill. How can I help them work through their problems?

How Can I Help

Dear How Can I Help,

We frequently receive questions from readers who want to help in various circumstances but don’t know how. Often, the readers have tried this and that but nothing has changed and they feel stuck and frustrated. I’d like to offer a few suggestions—starting with some strategies that you’ll want to avoid.

Common Mistakes to Avoid
Don’t come out of that room until. . . Your two employees who have too many conflicts are a little like oil and water. They complain to their colleagues and boss. They say, “I’ve had it up to here,” and the boss uses a strategy akin to: “you two stay in the room until you can work it out and behave like adults.”

This approach doesn’t work because the boss is asking these employees to do more than they are generally capable of. The conversation won’t start with safety. They probably can’t find mutual purpose or mutual respect. And, even if they are motivated to talk, they will probably end the conversation by sharing jabs. Or, equally disastrous, they’ll smile and pretend all is well just so they can leave the room and please the boss.

“Stop doing the bad stuff, and do more of the good stuff.” Often, when a boss becomes aware of conflict between two team members, he puts on a coaching hat. Whether he meets with them individually or together, he gives advice that is general and vague. He makes suggestions that are not behaviorally specific. For example: “You need to be team players.” “You need to be more understanding and accepting.” “You need to be nicer to one another.” In a recent survey we conducted, 87 percent of employees said their boss was unclear about improvements they needed to make to perform better in their jobs. In fact, 37 percent felt their boss had very little idea about what they could do to improve. These numbers clearly show that vagueness only adds to the problem rather than solving the conflict.

Some Advice
The advice I offer here is based on the fact that I’ve seen these common mistakes made all too often. Rather than give ultimatums or vague feedback, use the following crucial conversations skills to reduce conflict.

First, get your motives right. You have to get your emotions and intentions right before you can talk with your employees. The mistake “helpers” often make is that what they think they want is to not hear about the problems or to simply have the employees “straighten up.” Instead, ask yourself the question: “What do I really want—for me, for them, and for our relationship?”

Set ground rules. Before discussing the specific problem, have a discussion about ground rules and how the three of you will know if the conversation is effective. My colleague, Ron McMillan, recently stated a ground rule for measuring the effectiveness of a crucial conversation: “Does the conversation help move us closer to resolving the problem and does it help us strengthen our relationship?”

With these skills in mind, here is what that conversation might look like.

Begin by asking your employees to meet with you. Discuss the process and make sure everyone agrees to have a conversation about the issues in a way that will solve the problem and strengthen relationships. Suggest that your function, as their manager, is to engage in the discussion because the issue is impacting you as well as other members of the team. As a part of this agreement, note that any of you can stop the conversation and point out aspects of the dialogue that are not helping you move closer to the solution or strengthen relationships.

Next, be specific. Use statements of observation or facts. Be specific about expectations and behaviors, not conclusions and emotions. The script we teach is to make a statement about what was expected or agreed upon and what you actually observed. Follow that with a question, such as, “Do you see the situation differently?”

In conclusion, remember that it almost never works to ignore the problem and it seldom works to just let the employees work it out. If they could do that on their own, they would have already done it. So make some agreements up front and have a safe and specific conversation.

Best wishes,

Develop Your Crucial Skills

Image for

What's Your Style Under Stress?

Discover your dialogue strengths and weaknesses with this short assessment.

Take Assessment

Image for

Subscribe Now

Subscribe to the newsletter and get our best insights and tips every Wednesday.


Image for

Ask a Question

From stubborn habits to difficult people to monumental changes, we can help.

Ask a Question

12 thoughts on “Caught Between Clashing Personalities”

  1. Tweets that mention Crucial Skills » Caught Between Clashing Personalities --

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Hauke Borow, Crucial Skills. Crucial Skills said: Crucial Skills: Caught Between Clashing Personalities #newsletter […]

  2. Steve W

    This one is very familiar. My issue is a person other find difficult to deal with and fear. The sometimes difficult person tends to exaggerate issues and talk about the problems others are having, as though the other employee is having problems and will not talk to me. So, I talk to the employee and they roll their eyes and give me stories about how things are taken out of context and the other person has their own agenda. I have recently talked to the difficult person about this and told them that when I talked to others about the points she brings up, that they do not have the problem she describes. Anyone care to comment?

  3. Kristen Kelly

    May I suggest considering to have each employee take a DISC profile. It is a great communication tool that allows each person to see how they like to be communicated to and how to best communicate with others. You could go over each of theirs together to lend some insight into the differences each of them have and how to best communicate with each other. Just a suggestion.

  4. La-Verne Mourning

    This is certainly a timely bit of crucial information. I had a situation just this morning about this very topic. The information will be utlized when I have to encounter a follow up conversation with them again. Confronting is never easy but we must keep in mind when working in health care, it is about the patient and not about ourselves.

  5. Debbie Nixon

    I wonder what is the missing conversation that is causing so much pain among employees who consider each other as “difficult”? It seems as though the group has identified the offending behaviors, but is also having it’s own conversations that express doubt, distrust and lack of respect for the other – and sets up a never-ending, self-fulfilling prophecy of conflict.

    While the group is probably right about the changes they want, making that assertion or otherwise treating the person as “wrong” won’t work. What if someone could facilitate a conversation with the parties that helps them look with new eyes at each other,say, from the perspective of respect and gratitude?

    Here are some questions as an example that might help change the perspective of the parties:

    If they could imagine giving the person the benefit of the doubt, how would that change the conversation they are having with themselves about that person?

    What common goals are more important than the one of being right?

    What could each appreciate about the other person’s contribution?

    If they wanted to reinforce the other person’s dignity, what would they say or do?

    What are the strengths that make this pair such a great team, and how do they feel about that?

    The more common ground you can build, the more easily people will focus on what matters to create success. DO you ever notice how much slack we give our best friends? While these employees may not be friends outside of work, they are treating each other as enemies in the workplace, and that is not working for anyone.

    They aren’t broken, they just have different perspectives of right and wrong. Rather than hyperanalysing why that is, you can short cut it by helping them focus on what they want – winning at work.

    If they could change themselves to become a better workmate, what would they be willing to consider?

    Just some questions – you can probably come up with better ones of your own that would fit your situation. The idea is – what you say, you are. So what do you want to say?

  6. Worker Bee

    Hi Al: I feel your direction was quite insightful. I would like to share that throughout my career, I have had moments as a “crier”. I cannot explain why it occurs; as I have gone into meetings telling myself not to do this, ever, and then it happens. Perhaps it is pent-up frustration at not being able to solve a problem by myself. I tell myself “It’s just business, not personal” and the waterworks seem to have a mind of their own. If you can provide any suggestions for me or others like me, I would certainly appreciate it. BTW-I loved the content of comment #4. Useful.

  7. bean q

    this is not the first time i’ve seen statistics that vitalsmarts has gathered used in there publications, but i’m not sure where we can check the methods used for gathering those. i wouldn’t note it if there were some qualifications used in the text or a link provided that took me to where more detail was, but they’re introduced without much else to back them up.

  8. Janice

    Dear Al, In your response to “Caught Between Clashing Personalities” … I appreciate that you started the article by dispelling a couple of common myths and I agree with your advice about motives and ground rules.

    However, I think you left a couple of unfinished gems hiding in your analysis of the first common mistake, “Don’t come out of that room until…”

    A few years ago I had an experience with 2 senior managers who were frequently clashing and it was splitting the company into two camps. I decided to first meet individually with each of them to let them express their feelings, and I recorded the issues that were important to them, paraphrased in language approved by them in the meeting. This let them vent and feel heard and allowed me to manage the wording to ensure it was civil and respectful. I listened to their complaints and then looked for ways to reframe the ranting from “I don’t like…” to “What I really want is…” Then I asked, what do you like about [the other person]? Since they had just released a lot of energy, they were ready to say something nice about the other person, even compelled to say something nice. I continued to ask probing questions to help them bring to light some positive impressions they might have about the other person, even if it was very simple (such as “comes to work on time every day”).

    I then set up a meeting with the two managers and the company president. The president set the stage about why it was important to resolve the conflict, why it mattered to the company, that he valued each of them personally and professionally, and that he had confidence we could work this out. I had two flip charts prepared and I lifted the first blank page on each of them. The first thing each combatant saw was the list of things the other person valued about them. One list was noticeably shorter and the author felt compelled to make his list longer by adding a few more things that he valued about the other manager. This exercise completely changed the tone in the room from angry and defensive to open and conciliatory and served to radically increase trust. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was working from the Crucial Conversation principles of “start with safety” and “mutual respect” – the unfinished gems in your 3rd paragraph.

    We continued the meeting, focusing on common ground and common goals. I started with topics derived from their reframing (from “I don’t like…” to “I really want…”), then asked them clarify and/or elaborate if they wanted to. By the end of the meeting one of the managers, who was hard-working, up-through-the-ranks, blue collar, no-nonsense fellow, actually said to the other younger fellow, “I can understand how you might feel that way.” The two managers left the meeting with a stronger relationship and an agreement that they both endorsed.

    I didn’t know it then, but I think the strategy worked because of the principles that Crucial Conversations has illuminated: mutual respect, safety, common ground and common purpose.

  9. Doni D

    The employer who is “Caught Between Clashing Personalities” needs to remember that it is the employer’s responsibility to maintain a non-hostile workplace for all employees. The employer admits that one employee has an animated temperament and what is produced by that temperament, appears to be perceived as threatening and hostile by her coworker.

    Al, you are correct that ground rules must be set. An employee who does not have people skills should not be allowed to repeatedly take crucial issues to her coworker, that are delivered in an accusatory manner. The second time she did that should have been the last time!

    The employer needs to stop “refereeing” TWO teams and become the “coach” of THE team. If both ladies are on the same team and working as team players, Ms. Animated Temperament will be presenting her crucial issues to the “coach” not her teammate. The “coach” can then research the ideas presented by Ms. Animated Temperament and when needed, make changes to how the team is doing things. As the “coach” the employer can regain control of the office.

  10. Christina

    I am an employee working with clashing personalities. Although I was tagged with a supervisory position initially, my colleague would avoid and refuse to complete tasks which I was held accountable. Only explicit cc with indicated deadlines appeared to move the individual. One occasion the individual supplied information to the senior supervisor without informing me so context was lost on several occasions. I was hauled in by the senior supervisor not my immediate supervisor because the person could not did not review the task and asked the senior supervisor for clarification and raised concerns about my written tone in a coaching note. This person has a history of being so misunderstood and “confused”, the issue that required instruction seems to be the same issue the ” confused” person about two supervisor’s earlier. The person filed harassment charges on the supervisor but the supervisor took a lateral out of the firm. It appears I will have to be a supervisor of the person again. ( It’s a management issue not an ability issue) I am told do not think of being reassigned . (they will not reassign me.) Senior supervisor is new to the organization. My immediate supervisor is brilliant in his job and a great person to learn from for technical issues. I am looking to leave-now- that will take time in this economy. I do not welcome the return to stress. Because I can not trust this person and the lack of chain of command makes me feel vulnerable. I had a crucial conversation with my supervisor at the first go around. I am not welcoming the new go around.

  11. paul

    This approach in most offices would result in months of back stabbing and subtle behind the scenes undermining. As a manager – it’s tough to know when one of these folks is manipulating your perception of the situation. Sad but true – the folks who feel a bit insecure about their jobs (or feel they have been unfairly pre-judged for some reason they cannot avoid) have a hard-time with this stuff.

  12. Erin

    @Kristen Kelly
    What is a DISC profile and how is it accessed? Thanks in advance.

Leave a Reply

Get your copies
The ideas and insights expressed on Crucial Skills hail from five New York Times bestsellers.


Take advantage of our free, award-winning newsletter—delivered straight to your inbox