THERE IS A lot of leadership advice out there.  Hundreds of books, thousands of websites; some helpful, most not.  Much of it ignores fundamentals; instead offering adhoc, graft-on, band-aid, random, and arbitrary “solutions” with no foundation, little context and no integration. 

How are you supposed to remember, internalize, and successfully use “The 21 Immutable Laws of Leadership”, for example.   If you haven’t first mastered yourself – your independent thinking capabilities and your people skills especially – learning “rules” will not be much help.

And then there’s the “5 Steps to X”, “8 Ways to Y”, and “47 Rules of Z”; as though good leadership (and life, for that matter), could be reduced to a set of “Tab A into Slot A” instruction sheets.  These are popular because the human mind craves order, and lists are nothing if not ordered.  We love “step-by-step” instructions, but life is not a lego set.

What good leadership and successful living require is not so much in the way of instructions, nor even a map.  What is needed are fundamental skills; skills that give you the ability to make your own instructions, your own maps, depending on where you want to go and what you want to achieve.

Leadership advice that ignores these fundamentals is like trying to build a house without foundations.

Here’s a point in case.

[As a proviso, I mean no disrespect.  This is from Dan Rockwell‘s “Leadership Freak” blog, which is worth a look, and by Steven M.R. Covey, whose book “The Crisis of Trust” I’ve not yet read, but whose father Steven R. Covey authored the wildly popular “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”.]

It’s a post entitled:  10 Steps to Solve Tension Between Team Mates

After the intro, (which admonishes you never to ask “Why is this happening?”!!), you are instructed to invite the conflicting team mates to:

A bridge building conversation:

  1. Invite them to a “work on your work relationship” meeting.
  2. Explain your high hopes.
  3. Clarify: you aren’t fixing their relationship. (Essential)
  4. Question one: How satisfying is your work relationship, 1 to 10?
  5. Question two: How important is improving your work relationship, 1-10?
  6. Question three: What satisfaction number would make your work relationship fulfilling, 1-10?
  7. Question four: How would you describe great work relationships? (Ask each person for three expressions.)
  8. Question five: What’s essential to building great work relationships? (Ask for three things from each.)
  9. Explore one response from each person. Bob, you said, “Great work relationships are supportive.” What does support look like to you? Search for observable behaviors.
  10. Use responses to questions four and five to determine one or two things each person will do to build a great work relationship.
  11. And if they don’t shake hands at the end of the meeting, make them sit in opposite corners wearing dunce caps.

(Okay, I added point #11, but I think it fits…)

If you work with 8-year-olds, this approach might help.  For a day or two.  For anyone else, it’s worse than useless.  It’s condescending, puerile, demotivating, and will likely make Bob, and Bob’s colleague, think you’re a prat.   Seriously, a “work on your work relationship meeting“?

Perhaps this explains why, despite decades of research on management and leadership, 1000’s of books, and untold millions spent on leadership development, there’s still such a dearth of good leaders in all areas of our culture.  If this is what the “leaders” in the field of leadership offer, it’s no wonder good leaders are so few and far between.

Good leadership is not about holding people’s hands; it’s about showing them how to walk on their own, how to lead themselves.

Treat people like children and you’ll get one of two responses:

…the meeker and more compliant types will act like children, or, more correctly, will act immaturely; and the more independent types will rebel.  Either way, you’ll not be getting engaged, thinking, followers.  For that, you need to treat people as mature individuals; rationally.

If you have two or more people not getting along to such a degree that you need to intervene, that’s a symptom of a deeper, more fundamental problem; namely, you recruited poorly, your work processes are inefficient, and/or your team-building efforts are not working.

Good teams don’t bicker.

Creative conflict, yes; antagonism, rudeness, spite, defensiveness, finger-pointing, and all those schoolyard behaviors, no.

Let’s revisit Bob and his colleague (we’ll call him Joe).  If the two of them can’t get along, it’s because one or both of them are behaving irrationally, which translates to, behaving immaturely.  It’s not about whether they like each other or not;  that’s irrelevant.

Before you intervene, there’s a few questions you need to answer:

1.  What’s the negative impact on the team, on productivity, on progress towards organizational objectives?  If there really is none, then don’t fix what isn’t broken.  Everybody does not have to love everybody else.

2. Do both Bob and Joe add value – that is, are they earning their keep?  If one of them is not, then that’s the problem that needs addressing.

3.  Is either Bob or Joe at fault for the lack of civility or cooperation, for the “tension“?  Maybe Bob’s a bully.  Perhaps Joe is homophobic and Bob is gay.  Who knows?  If you don’t know the cause, you’re not the umpire, you’re the “third man in”, and deserve a trip to the penalty box.  If you do know, then treating the problem as “tension” between two equals is unfair. If the root of the problem is one of them, fix that.

If they both contribute equally to the team effort, are both at fault for the “tension” between them (which is unlikely, but let’s assume it for the sake of the exercise), and their poor relationship IS having a negative impact on aspects of the organization’s functions, then you’ll need to intervene (assuming they’re your direct reports.  If they’re not, then their direct supervisor should be handling the matter, with your assistance if needed).

There is no cookie-cutter approach, because situations and people are different.  Principles, however, can and should be applied.  The first principle of managing people is: reason.  The second is justice.  Everyone deserves to be treated rationally and fairly.

Talk to them.  Calmly and as adults.  Separately, if you suspect one of them is the cause of the issue or if you judge that one or both of them will “tune out” if they’re in a discussion with you together (and if it’s that bad, you really do have much bigger issues to deal with).

Ask them what the problem is.  Make them aware of the negative impact.  Remind them of their commitments to the team and especially to team norms:  no finger pointing, no excuses, no blame, one for all and all for one, together we stand, divided we fall – though you may want to avoid those cliched formulations  :-).

What you say and how you say it will depend on the individuals involved, your relationship with them, and the issues at hand.  Again, there is no “list of steps”.  These are people, not robots.  If you are not capable of having an adhoc conversation of this nature, you should question whether you are ready to be in an organizational leadership role.  These are fundamental people skills – communication, negotiation, delegation – and are prerequisite for a titled leadership role.

And while we’re on you…

…have you considered that you might be the cause of the issue?

If you behave irrationally, are unpredictable, play favorites, or in any way set a poor example, chances are you’re the root cause of any tensions or interpersonal conflicts in the team.  It is your team, after all.  Managing a team successfully starts with managing yourself.  Managing yourself starts with honest introspection and an ability to modify your own habitual behavior – in essence, to create yourself.  If you haven’t or don’t lay this foundation, no amount of “how to” lists will help.

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Related reading:  If you really need a slightly more structured approach, here is some additional good advice:  Kate Nasser: Teamwork #Peopleskills: Leaders, When Do You Intervene?