When egos clash in the workplace, owners and managers cannot afford to do nothing, because the business is likely to be the ultimate loser. So what is the best way to sort such problems out and why do they happen in the first place?
Ego clashes are nasty, destructive diseases that can harm businesses large and small. Many of us will have witnessed the symptoms. These can include one person deliberately failing to consult a colleague when they should, or failing to include them in group activity at work or after hours.
Sometimes warring factions ignore each other and in the process create an uncomfortable atmosphere for others. At other times they might clash or deliberately talk over each other in meetings. They might secretly seek to undermine their opponent to colleagues. Sometimes things can spill over and get ugly, leading to the unsightly spectacle of workplace shouting matches or worse.
Knowledge is power
"Managing personality or ego clashes is something that businesses of all sizes can struggle with, but in small businesses owners may lack the knowledge or experience of how to sort out such problems," says Anthony Sutton, managing director of Lichfield-based Cream HR, which provides HR advice and support to SMEs.
"There isn't one answer to solving the problem; solutions are dictated by the personalities involved and circumstances, but good communication is vital," he stresses.
Regular, open conversations between the owner/manager and staff, during which issues can be raised, can prevent ego clashes happening or spiralling out of control. "An informal, 10-15 minute catch-up each week with staff can be enough," adds Sutton. "Ask employees open questions to find out how they're getting on and listen carefully.
But what if a serious ego clash has already taken place? "Don't ignore it – you must act," Sutton replies. "Explain to the employee or employees that you need to sit down with them and talk about what has happened. You need to listen to events from their perspective.
"Talk as little as possible – it's about allowing the employee to express their views. If the clash has been between you and them, take them aside and ask them why they believe things got to that stage. Avoid talking at them or telling them off – they'll simply get more frustrated or switch off," he warns.
Root of a problem
Sutton says such information is a gift that can enable owners/managers to get to the root of a problem, which can help to resolve any fall-out, prevent it happening again and enable everyone to move forward. "There might be deeper issues," he adds. "For example, an employee might feel unhappy, undervalued or that their opinions are ignored. You or others might have no idea they felt so strongly about an issue, while the cause of their anger or frustration might be wholly unintentional."
If the ego clash is between two employees, Sutton recommends discussing the problem with both individuals separately at first, but he says true resolution can only be gained by all parties meeting and agreeing a solution. "If people have been shouting at each other or ignoring each other, you must make it clear it's not acceptable, because it harms your business."
Differences of opinion are healthy in business, Sutton admits, but it's the way those differences are voiced or acted upon that often causes ego clashes. "If an impasse between two employees is reached, you, the manager, must ultimately make a judgement, and compromise may be required. You should fully explain your decision – which should always be made for sound business reasons.
"Listening to staff is not a matter of being soft, while bullying them into doing what you want is no way to manage people. If your business is to succeed, your employees should enjoy their jobs and be able to make a valid contribution. People disagree – that's human nature, but differences of opinion can be discussed and resolved sensibly. Minor disagreements should never be allowed to fester or escalate, because ultimately it can prove highly destructive for your business," he concludes.
Why do ego clashes happen?
"Workplace ego clashes happen for various reasons," says Dr Lisa Matthewman, Principal Lecturer in Occupational and Organisational Psychology at the University of Westminster. "They can be the result of a conflict of personalities, professional jealousy or communication problems. Sometimes they happen when someone is trying to establish themselves as the alpha female or male.
"As well as conflict over resources in some businesses, they can be the result of office politics. General causes include how the business is structured or its culture, for example, where fear, insecurity or lack of trust exists. Ego clashes can also be more common in times of change or where there is uncertainty over someone's role,” she explains.
Matthewman says workplace ego clashes are common. "Fundamentally, we're an animal species, therefore conflict will occur in the workplace just as it does in wider society." But what affect do ego clashes have on the two people directly involved? While the person who emerges victorious might be filled with a sense of superiority and euphoria, feelings of complacency are ill-advised, says Matthewman. Although the loser can be left feeling demoralised, demotivated and even depressed, tense and stressed, often they want to get their own back, so they look for the first opportunity to do so.
"Serious workplace ego clashes can be highly stressful and demoralising for colleagues who aren't directly involved. It can seriously disrupt productivity and efficiency, because people's energy, time and attention is taken up with conflict, not working productively as a team.
"If left unresolved, as well as damaging productivity, the culture of an organisation can stagnate, which can harm creativity. In small businesses, problems are often made worse because people usually need to work more closely together."