07/23/2012 03:33 pm ET | Updated Sep 22, 2012

Manager, Mind the Energy Flow

A guy I used to work with, Sam, called me to talk about a problem at his office.

"Two of our admin assistants are embroiled in interpersonal conflict, and it's affecting the whole office," Sam told me.

"Okay," I said. "Tell me more about it."

"Well, these two young ladies have worked together for a few years, but lately it's like they can't stand one another. If there's any kind of process mix-up or something goes wrong, they're shooting dagger looks across the cubicles. They blame each other for everything. My office manager, who supervises them, is going out of her mind."

"What else is happening in the business?" I asked him.

"It's tense in general," he said. "I run our division, and it's not a huge part of the business and it's not growing. I try to keep things calm and running along smoothly, but stuff like this makes my job a lot harder."

I thought about it. "What have you done about the warring-admins thing so far?" I asked him.
"We've tried a few things and nothing's helped," Sam sighed. "The office manager basically assigned the two of these ladies to go to lunch together and work it out, one day last week."

"Oh mama," I said. "What happened?"

"One of the young ladies told our office manager 'That's a really offensive suggestion. My lunch hour is the one hour of the day that I get to spend as I please. If I've broken a policy or failed in my work, please tell me, but as long as I don't do that, I hope to be able to have lunch with myself or whomever I choose.'"

"Wow, she said all that?" I asked.

"It was a big thing in our office," said Sam. "The office manager nearly had a stroke. She came and told me about it, and what could I say? The girl has a point. That's what sucks about these interpersonal conflicts. I can't say to either person in the mix, 'You have to please Person X over there.' I can sort of say to both of them 'You have to be able to get along with the team' but then the question becomes, to what standard do I have to do that?'"

"Do you want my take on it?" I asked Sam.

"Why else would I call you?" he said. "I need some relief here. I would rather solve technical problems all day long than deal with this garbage."

"Let me give you a technical analogy to chew on, Sam," I said. "You design circuits over there at your company, right?"

"We do," said Sam. "Much simpler business than getting battling admins to put down their swords."

"It's the exact same thing, my brother," I said. "Current is going to flow through those circuits. You give the signal a path to follow. You take away anything that would cause resistance in the energy flow, apart from resistors you design into the circuit for good reasons, right?"

"Well, at a ducky-horsy level, you're not far off," he said. "Okay, Sam," I said. "It's the same thing in your office. The energy is off in your shop, badly. The two admins are signalling to you and the rest of the team, 'The energy circuit is broken.' I'm sure you can feel it. These two women aren't exceptional except that they're serving as lightning rods right now. You'll fix the admins-at-war problem when you take away the barriers that are stopping the energy flow in your place."

"Whoa," said Sam. "These two women are the only ones causing problems in the office."

"Sam, you said things were tense in general," I reminded him. "You said your division is small and not growing. Of course things are tense. Do you have a plan to turn things around, and if you have one, do people know what it is?"

"Frankly, Liz, I have a plan for my own reasonably soft landing if this place tanks, and that's about it," he said. "I'm managing this place the best I can, but I'm not ready to say that I know how to save it or have any confidence we'll survive."

"So there's your broken circuit," I said. "Everyone can sense your lack of confidence. They can see that you've taken care of your own exit and don't have a lot of faith in the division's turnaround. How could we expect them to miss what's swirling all around them, every day?"

"Give me credit, Liz!" said Sam. "It's not like I tell them 'We're probably not going to be here next year.'"

"Sammy," I said, "they take the orders and process them, they create the financials -- they know how bad things are. That energy permeates the joint. I'm surprised you haven't had other problems with the staff, before this."

"There've been a few things," Sam said. "Two people quit last year in sort of ugly ways and there were some big issues on the sales team." "That's where this stuff shows up," I remarked. "Sales people have the radar -- that's why they're good in sales. How did you resolve that one?"

"Two really good people left, and we replaced them with junior salespeople who haven't had any problems," said Sam.

"And since then the momentum is all downhill, with little spikes of success and enthusiasm now and then," I offered. "That's pretty much the deal," said Sam.

"So that energy drives everything -- what gets done, how people get along, you name it," I said. "The circuit is broken. I don't know if you can change it. I don't know why you would. If there's no hope for the division, you could talk to the team honestly about that and help people get other jobs."

"Right, shut down my own division!" Sam guffawed. I was silent for a second.

"What is the benefit of moving forward on a broken path?" I asked. "But also, what if you talked to your folks forthrightly and got their ideas -- maybe something you haven't thought of before, that might affect what you guys could achieve in the business?"

"We do Town Hall meetings, but no one really offers anything in the way of ideas," said Sam. "The general attitude is pretty much 'I just want to get through the day.' Are you saying I radiate that kind of energy?"

"You told me that you do, Sam," I said. "I'm shocked that this admin battle is all you're dealing with, to be honest."

"What would you do about it if you were me?" Sam asked. "I'd sit down with everyone who reports to you, one on one, and share your concerns and your own fear about the future," I said.

"I could get another job in two minutes," said Sam.

"That's awesome," I said. "Is that your leadership posture with these folks -- 'I could get another job in two minutes, and believe me, when the shit hits the fan, that's exactly what I'll do?'"

"Well, you got me there," said Sam. "That's actually my fear talking, because I'm not certain I could get a job in two minutes, in this economy."

"I love you, Sam," I said. "If you could say that to the people who work with you, everything would soften. Try it. You'll be surprised, I predict. Don't stop with your direct reports. Once those guys are in the loop, talk with the rest of the team, too. Tell them what's up. Tell them what you're doing, and tell them that you don't have the answer and you aren't a knight in shining armor who can fix everything."

"I sort of think they know that already," said Sam. "I keep forgetting you're not in Chicago anymore. What you're talking about, it's pure Boulder stuff, right?"

"No way, Sam," I said. "This is pure North Jersey stuff, from where I grew up. There's nothing touchy-feely about energy fields. You're an engineer -- you know all about that."

"I never thought energy fields applied to people," said Sam. "Gaack!" was my reply.