The Bad Business of Bickering Managers

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By Bruce L. Katcher, Ph.D.

The results were clear from a recent employee survey I conducted for a manufacturer of medical instruments. Morale was very low in one of their operating units. Senior management asked me to visit the facility to learn more about the problem. After spending time interviewing the employees and their managers, the reasons for the low morale were clear: the heads of the manufacturing and engineering departments were constantly fighting.

The Problem
Unfortunately, this is a common problem. Our research in more than 90 organizations has shown that, on average, half of all employees surveyed say that senior management in their organization does not work well together as a team.

How does this affect employees? The situation is quite similar to what happens to children when their parents fight. Children of parents who are in continual conflict exhibit the following behaviors:

1. They are aware of the conflict even when their parents argue behind closed doors.  Senior managers may think that their arguments and disagreements are private, but they usually are not. Employees can sense when there are constant disagreements. They can see it in their facial expressions, glean it from their e-mail messages, and feel it when they are in the room with them. If the managers happen to publicly express their feelings even just once, it spreads like wildfire throughout the organization.

2. They do poorly in school and have difficulty thinking (i.e., with problem solving, abstract reasoning, and memory). When senior managers constantly quarrel, the quality of the work in their organization or work units suffers. Deadlines are not met, employees feel less comfortable expressing their views openly, creative ideas are less forthcoming, collaboration between departments is poor, and employee engagement declines.

3. They often speak ill of one parent to the other. Employees frequently take sides with a particular manager. Warring camps develop which stifle cooperation and communication.

4. They experience persistent anxiety and health problems (e.g., insomnia).
Instead of enjoying their work and their coworkers, when senior managers are in conflict, there is a constant tension in the air that permeates the work environment, as well as the personal lives of employees who are exposed to it. I have often seen how the constant pressure of feuding managers leads to decreased energy among employees, along with an increase in absenteeism and turnover.

5. They do not interact well with other children and often act out by displaying behavior problems, anger, or violence. It is very common for the tenor of the relationships between senior managers to become mirrored throughout the organization. For example, if senior managers yell and scream at each other, more of this type of behavior often happens at lower levels of the organization. If senior managers withhold information from each other, the behavior is more likely to occur at all levels.

What to Do
Organizations faced with bickering senior managers should do the following:

1. Ask the senior-most executive to get involved. He or she must let the bickering managers know that their behavior is adversely affecting employees and is unacceptable. Further, he or she should say that no matter what their past or present contributions to the organization, unless they correct the situation, there will be serious consequences.

2. Involve human resources professionals. Before the problem escalates, human resource professionals should intervene by conducting individual and group coaching sessions with the parties involved.

3. Make certain the guilty managers recognize the problem and commit to resolving it. Unless the offending parties recognize the problem and sincerely agree to resolve it, no amount of intervention by senior management, human resources, executive coaches, or anyone else will make a difference.

4. Have them make public apologies. Employees need to hear from the guilty parties that they recognize the problem, understand that it is having a negative impact on the organization, and that they apologize to each other and to the organization.

5. Hire an executive coach. In many cases it is best for human resources to step aside and defer to an outside executive coach who specializes in resolving these types of issues. These coaches can offer a more objective and neutral perspective than an insider can provide.

6. Conduct the “JFK Exercise.” My frequent readers will recall that this exercise asks conflicting parties to refocus their energy from finger-pointing to asking what they can do to help the other party. When both parties do this, the problems will gradually disappear. It does, however, require that both parties be sincerely interested in improving the situation. I am proud to say that I have had great success using this approach in many organizations.

7. Recognize positive behaviors. This is where senior management must step in again. When they see improvements in how the warring managers are working together, they should praise them for it both privately and publicly.

8. Use the performance management process. If all else fails, senior management must use the organization's performance appraisal system to document the problem, identify improvement goals, and monitor the progress or lack thereof. Termination of one or both parties should not be ruled out.

Just as fighting parents traumatize children, employees suffer when their managers are in conflict. Use the approaches described above to improve the situation. Doing nothing is just bad business.

About the Author(s)

Bruce L. Katcher, Ph.D. is an industrial/organizational psychologist and founder and president of Discovery Surveys, Inc. ( and the Center for Independent Consulting ( He is the author of 30 Reasons Employees Hate their Managers (AMACOM) and, most recently, An Insider's Guide to Building a Successful Consulting Practice (AMACOM, 2010).