When teamwork doesn’t work

EasyJet captain, taken from BBC website (link below)
EasyJet EZY835 pilot, taken from the BBC website (link below)

I’ve just been reading here about a “falling out” between two EasyJet cabin crew members yesterday which left passengers “aghast” and delayed a flight from Gatwick to Belfast by 90 minutes. I could almost hear EasyJet’s HR team mobilising to deal with the protagonists and it started me pondering that in my HR career I have become involved in some, er, interesting disputes between colleagues in my time…  which I won’t blog in detail about here for obvious reasons. Suffice to say, disagreements over football team loyalties, encroachment of staplers onto other people’s desks and who gets a car park pass have all been cause for near-fisticuffs between team members at various stages of my working career.

I moved on to wonder why I have got involved. At first, it seems like managing a dispute between two team members should be a management issue – why would HR get involved? But then we all know HR gets involved in all sorts of weird and wonderful things and, as the alleged experts in “People stuff” within our organisations, it does make more sense than, say, organising the Christmas party or taking responsibility for Health & Safety…

One of the quotes from EasyJet in the BBC article caught my eye:

“In order to deliver this cabin crew need to be able to work as a team”

The insinuation clearly being that – on this occasion at least – this particular crew couldn’t do that. I wondered what action would be taken against them and who would be dealing with it. On the face of it, the crew members’ inability to put aside their personal differences delayed a plane load of customers for 90 minutes, not to mention bringing the airline into some form of disrepute. At the time of writing it was the most-read story on the BBC website. On the other hand, according to one passenger, “It sounded like the disagreement was over the way one staff member was packaging or storing bottles of water… It was something really petty.”

It is true of any team that they have to be able to work effectively together in order to deliver – whether it’s a safe flight, a good report or a great customer experience. And HR certainly should have a role to play in helping teams to be effective. In my experience, this varies from organisation to organisation – from supporting the manager dealing with disagreements between team members remotely (sometimes we all need someone to bounce ideas off, however experienced we are as people managers) to wading in and contributing directly with interventions like mediation or coaching. And for me, that’s perfectly right – there is no one right answer to dealing with this kind of stuff.

Of all the tricky issues I’ve dealt with in what is rapidly approaching twenty years in HR, managing flare-ups between two people who Just. Don’t. Get. On. is one of the hardest things to get right. I’ve tried lots of different approaches with varying degrees of success – but where there are people involved, things are always unpredictable. Yes, at the end of the day you can just bang heads together and tell people to get on with it, but it never cures the problem and you can guarantee it will raise its head again. The fallout can have a disastrous effect on both relationships and productivity in the workplace. So that’s why we in HR have to be on our toes when these things happen and prepared to support in whatever way we can. We all have to work as part of a team.