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 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 student relationships.
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" teammate.
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 shared her co-worker was speaking poorly of her to parents.
Nearing the end of the conversation, the positive teacher indicated 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.
Fear 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.
The following day, I visited the negative teacher’s classroom but noticed she’d already left to go home. I also went to her classroom the next day, only to realize she was home sick.
The following week was unusually busy, with many school events and activities planned. I kept finding reasons (excuses) why we couldn’t meet.
The longer I waited, the more I wanted to avoid the conversation. I was dreading the negative teacher’s reaction to my 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 accepted a job in a nearby district.
Shortly after hearing this information, I went to her room to offer my congratulations. Furthermore, 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. The situation had not gotten any better – only worse – since we talked.
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 spoke with the principal at the school where the positive teacher had landed. By every indication, she was thriving. Not only had she assumed leadership roles within the staff, she was perceived as a top teacher in the building.
Talk about pouring salt in the wound.
Leaders have a responsibility to confront difficult issues quickly and with clarity and resolve. When we dodge difficult conversations, leaders jeopardize the success of their organization.
Failing to address this unresolved conflict was one of the biggest mistakes of my leadership career. I learned you will lose good people when you don’t throw water on the drama that is a natural result of humans working together.
Do not make this same mistake.
Rather than lose an outstanding employee, address toxic coworkers and promptly squash underlying tension within your staff.