Stop the Fighting: What to do When Your Team Doesn't get Along

Sometimes you'll have to play the role of referee. Image: Getty

Workplace conflict is as old as the workplace itself, from fistfights on the Senate floor before the Civil War, to any reality show episode today. And it’s common. A whopping 85% of employees deal with it, and 31% of managers think they handle it well. However, 43% of employees don’t think their bosses do a good job of handling conflict.

In bars, clubs, and restaurants, wars between the front and back of the house, bartenders and management, and the new hires and the old staff are common. Tip brawls? Don’t get us started. And we’ve all heard of actual fights spilling into the lounge and including customers. That’s definitely not a path to great Yelp reviews!

Culture Club vs Ultimate Fight Club

When feuds exist in your workplace, you must address the problem immediately. But a bigger, broader, more strategic view helps you avoid and stem future fights before they even start, and build a culture of calm and understanding.   

Fights in our industry generally originate from four factors: fear, lack of understanding, resentment of other people who aren’t “pulling their weight,” and/or lack of trust (in others, in the system, or in you).

Yes, many fights can probably be traced back to you, so ask yourself:

  • Are you setting clear goals and expectations?
  • Are you holding people accountable?
  • How clear are you about acceptable behavior? Are you hiring people who demonstrate that behavior?
  • Are you available to answer questions and provide training?
  • Are you guilty of playing favorites or publicly criticizing people (which may, in turn, give your workers permission to do the same)?
  • Is workload evenly balanced or do you have a few people carrying too much weight while others coast?

Now that you’ve looked at your own role in creating conflict or fueling fires, let’s get down to diffusing the drama.

In work, the “flee or flight” mode often comes into play. Most people don’t like to change jobs, even when their unhappiness is due to conflict, so that leads them to fight (communication is the third option, and all we like to see that chosen above the other two).

Fighting can be obvious or passive-aggressive. We urge you to get the issues out in the open. Insist on getting the parties to sit down with you to talk and make clear each person’s perspective. It’s the most efficient and honest way to resolve conflict and removes misinterpretation and time-consuming back and forth. You’ll be amazed how many issues dissolve when the parties are confronted with having to confront each other!  

Of course, you will never be able to monitor the feuds and sniping that might be happening via text or social media, but you can make it clear that disputes in your place of business will not be tolerated.

Hiring and Managing to Avoid Conflict, Attract Success

Sometimes, conflicts arise because your business is going through changes that have an impact on roles and responsibilities. That can result in confusion or stress. For example:

  • Is your bar or club facing new direction? Is there a new menu, chef or owner?
  • Are you expanding quickly? Do schedules and the number of customers change weekly or even nightly as a result?
  • Is your bar a “steady Eddie,” been there forever, and will be there even longer? That can also produce conflict as new hires may be eager to change the game and shake things up.

These examples are very different scenarios that require very different types of hires, training, and team management. Do you have the right people for the appropriate business needs and challenges? Think long and hard about the profile of the people you will need, who you hire, and who you keep on staff. Many fights can flow from the frustrations of individuals who do not fit with what your organization needs now and into the future, especially when they are surrounded by fellow team members who do fit well.

Get in the Ring: Assess, Referee and Reward

If your place of business is brawling more than celebrating, it’s time to change. After assessing the situation – be sure to take time to watch, listen, ask, and learn (that includes customers as well as employees) – change requires three steps:

  1. Unfreezing with purpose. Move deliberately. Define and communicate the problem to your team members.
  2. Transforming directly. You might need to change roles, processes, and even people. Be clear and honest about why you’re making changes, and about areas of accountability. Role model the behaviors you want your team to adapt. Avoid gossip, trash talk and throwing tantrums in public.
  3. Refreezing patiently. Over time, reinforce roles, flows, and expected behaviors. Strong, peace-making, sustainable change does not take place overnight.

Be sure, too, that teamwork and cooperation are factors in compensation and rewards. Cheer on the people who serve customers well and foster teamwork and a positive attitude.

Lastly, you can avoid stress and fights by being a considerate, smart manager who plans. Create balanced schedules so your stars don’t feel like they are carrying too much weight. And avoid the temptation to hit your easy-going, best performing employees with the dreaded “clopenings,” (closing one night and opening the next morning) or shifts too many days on in a row. It’s easy to fall into the bad habit of not giving your team enough notice about next week’s schedule.

Happy, balanced-life employees produce more and fight less!

Set it, but Don’t Forget it

A bar or club is a living organism: people’s lives change, competitors change, and customers’ tastes change. Find team members who seek and thrive in change and innovation.

And remember, when you stop fights, you may lose your Mr. or Ms. Popularity title. Leaders lead, and sometimes that’s tough. But occasionally being unpopular and producing big results is a lot better than being adored by a group of workers fighting amongst themselves as the business goes down for the count.

So, in summary, a 7-step path to bliss and success:

  1. Hire smart.
  2. Get a handle on what the issues are; encourage being forthcoming.
  3. Examine your own role in escalating drama.
  4. Don’t be a coward: deal with underlying issues as well as the people.
  5. Hire according to the situation your business is in now, as well as for the future.
  6. Create balanced schedules so your stars don’t feel like they are carrying too much weight.
  7. Make tough decisions. You have a business to run; you can’t always be Mr. or Ms. Popularity but you could come to be known as The Champion of Peace and Harmony!

Welcome to the ring of teamwork – the fights can end with everyone a winner!