How to Deal With Staff Tension

Adapted, with permission, from this article published on The Camp Whisperer.

Tension Happens.

Let's get that out in the open right away, shall we?

Tensions are natural. Because the reality is we don’t always agree with each other, and sometimes we show it.  Sometimes we show it a lot. Especially during stressful moments we can have real difficulty working well with certain people.  This is a natural part of being one person in a group of other people; we think differently and work differently, and sometimes that is just hard.

But if we aren’t careful, tensions can rule the group.

They can rise unexpectedly.  They can also simmer below the surface, never really leaving.  Here are a few helpful guidelines to help minimize the tension in your staff, or at least limit the negative effects.

Keep it private.

Few things are more detrimental to employee morale than hearing upper-level staff argue.  These arguments make you question their capabilities, their love for their job, and (depending on how frequently it happens) can make you look for another job. 

Even worse than full-on arguments are the subtle put-downs people make behind each other’s backs.  A staff member saying “I don’t get it, but that’s what she wants, so we’ll deal…” or someone saying “yeah, I know it’s stupid…but he said…” is often more poisonous to your team than a straight-out yelling match.

Showing a united, supportive front will give confidence to the rest of the staff (this does not mean pretending you know everything and not asking for help).  And even staff members you have conflict with will appreciate the effort.  Agree to keep conflict behind closed doors as much as possible, and to not say anything about each other you wouldn’t want to say to their faces.

Choose your battles

We make so many decisions each day. And there will likely be at least a couple we won’t all agree on.  But it is important to carefully choose which actions/decisions you will focus on.  If two staff members disagree on how to accomplish a specific task, tensions can rise.  If both staff members refuse to back down, or one does but is bitter about the situation, staff tension will be very high.  If, however, staff members decide this is not a battle that is REALLY important to them, tension will be much lower.  Same disagreement, different emotional result.

Have conversations with your staff about the importance of recognizing we can't win every battle. And that even if we could, we would lose out on relationships and the benefits of a properly functioning team. Encourage them to stop before arguing with each other and really decide whether this is the battle they are choosing as important to them.

Talk to each other

Much staff tension is created by issues that are simply never resolved. They are swept under the rug, never to be spoken of again.

But everyone knows the tension is there, and this tension negatively impacts your team. People walk on eggshells, expending precious energy striving to keep the illusion of harmony. Whole topics of conversation are avoided in an attempt to prevent that tension from surfacing, meaning some of the most critical topics to cover in your company may be taboo. This is no good.

Get issues out in the open. Don't allow people to sweep things under and pretend everything is fine. Have those difficult conversations where you ask people candidly about tense moments and how they are moving forward. It will be uncomfortable at time, but your business cannot afford the expense that comes with unregulated staff tensions.

What experiences have you had with staff tensions that went un-checked?