Early in my administrative career, I supervised a pair of teachers who worked closely together.
One teacher was positive, creative, and full of energy. She was loved by colleagues and students enjoyed being in her classroom. She searched for ways to engage her students, and always went the extra mile to make learning exciting.
The other teacher was negative, prickly, and lazy. She isolated herself from peers and students didn’t particularly enjoy her class. Her lessons resulted in low engagement and she gave little effort building relationships with students.
One Wednesday afternoon, the “positive” teacher asked for a few minutes of my time. During that conversation, she revealed how uncomfortable she felt working with her "negative" team member.
She described the intimidation she felt working with this individual. She indicated new ideas were quickly shut down by her more-veteran colleague. She also indicated her co-worker was speaking poorly of her to parents.
Nearing the end of the conversation, the positive teacher indicated that she “dreaded coming to work," and was contemplating leaving at the end of the year.
Hearing this feedback resulted in a variety of emotions:
Disappointment in myself for not noticing this pattern earlier.
Frustration towards the negative teacher for her actions.
Heartache for the positive teacher who did not like coming to work.
Distress that we could lose this teacher if we didn't act quickly.
As the meeting ended, I promised the teacher I would address the situation right away.
At the end of the following day (Thursday) I visited the classroom of the negative teacher but noticed she already left for the day. The next day (Friday) I went to her classroom only to realize she was out sick.
The following week was an unusually busy, with many school events and activities planned. I kept finding reasons (excuses) for why we couldn't meet.
The longer I waited, the more I wanted to avoid the conversation. I wasn't looking forward to the reaction I would receive when I shared the feedback. The positive teacher wasn’t lying when she suggested her colleague was intimidating ... we were all intimidated by her!
In short, the conversation never happened.
A month and a half later I heard devastating news: The positive teacher had taken a job in a nearby district.
Shortly after hearing this information, I went to her room to congratulate her on the new position. Beyond congratulating her, I needed to know one thing:
Did my inaction lead to her resignation?
Sure enough, her primary reason for leaving was the personality conflict with her co-worker. Things had not gotten any better – only worse – since she confided in me.
My heart sunk. I had completely failed one of our staff members. As a leader, this should have never happened.
A couple years later, I had a chance to connect with the principal at the school where the positive teacher had landed. By every indication, she was thriving. She was already viewed as one of the building's top teachers, and was taking on leadership roles within the staff.
Talk about pouring salt in the wound.
This was an incredibly tough lesson for me to learn.
To this day, I believe my inactivity in addressing this situation was one of my biggest failures as a building administrator. As a result, I have vowed to never lose an outstanding employee due to a toxic co-worker.
In his book EntreLeadership, Dave Ramsey shares the following: “You will lose good people when you don’t throw water on the drama that is a natural result of humans working together. Part of leading well is creating an atmosphere where justice prevails. That means unresolved conflict is a leadership breakdown.”
In his book The Motive, Patrick Lencioni contends: “One of the main responsibilities of a leader is to confront difficult issues quickly and with clarity and resolve. There isn't a leader out there who hasn't balked at a moment when they should have ‘entered the danger’ and had a difficult conversation about these things. I know almost no executive likes to do this. And yet, when leaders dodge these situations, they jeopardize the success of the team and the organization as a whole.”
Leaders – do not make my same mistake. We must address culture-killing employees and promptly squash underlying tension within our staff.
Failure to address unresolved conflict could result in one of your best employees leaving for a neighboring district.
Looking for a great book about addressing toxic employees? Consider reading Shifting the Monkey by Todd Whitaker.