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As Leader, how do I handle jealous sniping?

Dear Office-Politics,

I have two employees on the same level of the employee ladder and they are constantly complaining about each other. I see that they are very jealous of each other. They both do a very good job and I try to treat them the same, but the saga continues. What can I do to get them to work more as a team?



dr. rick brandon
dr. marty seldman

Dear Leader

Alas, you probably wish it was lonelier at the top, eh? Fielding the complaints and blame-fixing by quibbling subordinates is one of the most common crosses to bear as a team leader, supervisor, or manager. While the old phrases, “comes with the territory,” “that’s the price of the dream,” don’t eliminate the problem, they provide helpful perspective so that you don’t become overly annoyed. Here are a few questions, tips and ideas to sift through as you decide which dynamics apply to your two children (oops, strike that… employees).

You say they are “jealous,” which falls more under the umbrella of classic office politics involving finger pointing and making the other look bad so that each can gain favor with you and receive the goodies of being on top of the political totem pole with you. Really no different than a parent dealing with two siblings who need to understand there’s plenty of family love to go around and you don’t play favorites.

Of course, they are approaching YOU since you’re the one with the power to grant promotions, bonus, plum assignments, positive feedback that impacts careers, etc. Just as Willie Sutton replied, “because that’s where the money is,” when asked why he robbed banks, two employees bring their skirmishes to you because you are where the money is. Don’t get overly irked with human nature. That said, are you SURE they don’t also or more exclusively just have genuine tensions that stem from style differences, interpersonal ineptness, immaturity, rigidity, lack of a team spirit, etc.? Sometimes we read hidden agendas into a scenario such as yours when it’s less sticky.

If you’ve ever watched the seminal, groundbreaking HBO series about New Jersey mobsters, The Sopranos, you know that the boss, Tony, often conducted a “sit down” meeting at the Ba Da Bing club to hash out differences between warring members of his “family.” Our friend and author, Deb Himsel, wrote a fascinating book called, Leadership Sopranos Style (Dearborn, 2004) that illustrates some of the positive behaviors Soprano demonstrates in his organization even though his work product is obviously shady.

Whether you’re into that TV drama or not, consider having a “sit down” to do some straight talk about the negative impact of these employees’ finger pointing and whining. Be clear with the offenders that you do NOT wish to cut off productive, constructive information sharing about work issues, but your time constraints, stress, and workload (not to mention desire to maintain of positive team-oriented culture and work environment) leads to several expectations:

1) Tattling behavior drains performance and productivity
The behavior needs to be reduced. Discuss the tattling behavior and its frequency as draining performance and productivity–– theirs and yours. Facilitate a dialogue “once and for all” about what their legitimate beefs may be, to isolate whether it really involves interpersonal style clashes (check out People Styles at Work by Bolton and Bolton) or even functionally embedded conflicts (e.g., a sales guy ticked at quality control’s perceived bottlenecking just by doing his job, etc.) and help them by mediating the differences and/or doing a mini-teaching and coaching of how to work out differences.

If a class or coaching by HR reps on such issues is needed then invest in that route. If the conflict does NOT seem to be rooted in these straightforward dynamics, rather in politics and back stabbing to gain an edge, explore our suggestions below.

2) Running to daddy or mommy
Either way, they must work out issues between themselves first. “Running to daddy or mommy” at the first sign of a clash only reinforces immaturity, being rescued, saving up a ledger of things to snitch on, etc. You expect to be used more strategically than for baby sitting, so let them both know you view such behavior negatively.

3) What would a camera see?
They’d better be prepared to state concerns in BEHAVIORAL terms, by describing what a camera would see, as opposed to using inferential, vague, name-calling, global language. “Not a team player,” “poor attitude,” or “not customer focused” are not helpful until you get them or YOU to flesh out such labels by asking for specific examples that constitute such conclusions.

Let them know you will always ask for evidence and behavioral answers to “what would a camera see and record that backs up that claim,” so that they bring less accusations to you and are ready to back up their complaints with data and specifics. Watch how quickly they back peddle. Emphasize that you’ll frown upon empty claims.

Besides the above tactics, if hidden agendas and ulterior motives versus genuine, “clean” complaints are driving the employees’ behavior, think about what pressures, fears, and greed might motivate the destructive actions.

These dynamics usually exacerbate negative blame games, so are YOU or the company culture spreading paranoia or job instability?

Is the rest of the organization pretty competitive, or do reward systems perpetuate cut-throat behaviors?

Examine company and team values, what management models, how you’ve treated tattling, etc., to discover any changes required environmentally to alter behavior. Then, as stated above, reinforce the desired cooperative, forgiving and tolerant behavior patterns. Make it worth their while to maintain team spirit and focus on common, superordinate goals. Read our book, Survival of the Savvy for signals in a company that the overall culture breeds overly-political behavior, such as a revolving door in management, lots of sabotage around the enterprise, data from exit interviews, etc.

Your job as leader includes being a steward for the company morale, spirit, and health so do what you can to conduct an informal audit of why this behavior seems to flourish. Be careful you do NOT send a message for all people in all situations to “dummy up,” since you don’t want to accidentally halt needed whistle blower activity when someone really is doing things that could hurt the organization and wind you up in newspaper headlines!

Like in our family analogy, the children need to be clear that there’s room enough for many good kids! Help them feel rewarded for contributions of their own and their teams, NOT by tearing down someone else. Teach them about what we call Balanced Self-Promotion to broadcast what they are excited or proud of having achieved, rather than gaining visibility and attention by making other perceived competitors go away.

The old adage about geese flying together is the image you want them to maintain, since a solo flight in the cold of winter is a long, lonely one. Develop enterprise values of teamwork, go on team outings or training, and build an environment that breeds such behavior. Give enough avenues for recognition and reward in case the behavior bothering you stems from “stroke deprivation,” as the Transactional Analysis psychologists call it.

Obviously, you may eventually need to separate these two if they cannot play together in the sandbox, but teaching them about the professional world of work seems more long-term and healthy a solution. We wish you all the best!

Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.


Rick Brandon, Ph.d. and Marty Seldman, Ph.D. Co-authors,
Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success

cover of Survival of the SavvyRick Brandon, Ph.d. and Marty Seldman, Ph.D. are Co-authors, Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success. Dr. Rick Brandon is CEO of Brandon Partners. He has consulted and trained tens of thousands at corporations worldwide, including Fortune 500 companies across a variety of industries. Dr. Marty Seldman is one of America’s most experienced executive coaches. His 35-year career includes expertise in executive coaching, group dynamics, cross-cultural studies, clinical psychology, and training.

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