Ethics Coach

How to Handle Personal Conflicts Professionally

How to Handle Personal Conflicts Professionally
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This story appears in the May 2016 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »
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I bought out my business partner and moved from a behind-the-scenes role to running the company. His parting gift was to tell some employees and suppliers that I’m not trustworthy. I feel betrayed and defensive, and don’t know who heard what. How can I set things right? 

It doesn’t matter who heard -- assume everyone did, and now your team will be watching to see if what you say (or what they heard) matches up with what you do. Time for the high road: no revenge badmouthing. Your opportunity here isn’t to prove you are trustworthy; it is to consistently show up and be trustworthy. 

Remember, people want you to succeed. They’d prefer a good boss over a bad one. So create a community that they’re excited to be a part of. Honor relationships and commitments. Build a climate that encourages questions, ideas and differing viewpoints, and allows you to identify red flags, problems and, most important, solutions. If you get stuck, ask yourself: Why should they want to follow me? Your team is used to your predecessor’s style, so have patience, talk straight, balance praise with constructive feedback and move them forward with you.

I’m the CEO of a 15-person organization. Our marketing guy is great at his job, but I don’t like him; he calls my authority into question in meetings, and he smells like coffee. Can I fire him?

The pink slip threshold isn’t met by odor and dislike, but Mr. Marketing Whiz does need to stop his bullying campaign. Put aside his great work and look at his behavior’s impact on your organization, and on you. Why have you waited to address his treatment of you? Were you afraid he’d go to the competition, or just be horrid in confrontation? Is there other collateral damage -- for example, is he undermining other team members? 

Think hard about what created this situation and how to make it better. Then, armed with specifics and backed by your HR person, have a woodshed conversation with the marketing guy about what needs to stop immediately and the consequences, including firing, if it doesn’t. 

Is it more ethical to promote philanthropy, like adding my logo to a cause, or to be quiet and graceful by not mentioning it?

There is no one “right” way to do it. If you’re heavy-handed, some might assume your gift was a public relations ploy. But there’s nothing wrong with adding your logo to a cause; it signifies you are fully behind it, contributed accordingly and your employees are onboard. Being public about donating can even foster increased job satisfaction that spills over in dealings with customers. Others give anonymously, happy to share it only with their employees. Do what works for you, and do it respectfully. 

Edition: October 2016

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