Open the channels: The importance of interpersonal skills

“About 18 months ago, I hired a new sales engineer to work in our department with three others. He came to us with about three-and-a-half years of experience and a lot of get-up and go. He’s about 27, a college graduate, and smart as a whip. But since he’s been with us, he’s also alienated his three colleagues with his hard charging ways. One employee in particular is having a hard time with him. This employee is a 20-year veteran and the exact opposite of my younger employee — he’s conservative, quiet, slow, cautious, etc. Here’s the crux of the problem — the older employee just found out what I’m paying the younger employee. The two of them aren’t talking much with one another — they just do their work, even if it means working around each other. They’re not talking with me very much, either. I’m afraid I could lose one or both of them if I don’t get things turned around. I need some help sorting my options to solve the problem.”
Your younger employee seems to fit the general pattern of what we are seeing with today’s younger employees. They are eager, savvy and self-directed.

With respect to your older employee, I have to assume that he has been doing a technically acceptable job or you would not have kept him around all of these years.

I have to believe that you are paying the younger employee as you are because he brings current know-how and because getting him required you to pay the prevailing market rate (or higher).

It seems to me that you have been focusing more on the technical aspects of the situation and less on the interpersonal. Employees must be held accountable for the products or services they support (i.e., “the what”) and also the processes (i.e., “the how”) they use.  Processes involve a variety of resources including tools, techniques, raw materials, time and people.

In the figure accompanying this column, three domains of leadership are highlighted, along with associated roles. Many technical employees struggle in the interpersonal arena and, as a result, fail to progress in the organizational hierarchy toward the apex of the organization where the strategic domain and associated roles become important (i.e., executive-level assignments).
It is too easy in today’s competitive business environment to overlook interpersonal deficits and simply look at the impact of the application of technical skills. To only focus on whether the job got done might be to overlook unintended consequences that accrued along the way (e.g., internal strife, lack of communication, etc.).

To resolve your situation, I think you need to do three things. First, you need to have one-on-one discussions with each of your employees. In your meeting with the younger employee, you need to help him see how his behavior impacts those around him. Share with him the impact his behavior is having on the department and why it is important for him to change. Then, point out precisely what you expect of him in the future (i.e., less “going solo,” more collaboration, less grandstanding, etc.).

When you sit down to talk with your veteran employee, I would not get into a discussion in which you justify your pay structure. Remind your employee that compensation is based on objective criteria (i.e., compensable factors). The focus of your discussion with the veteran employee should be his interpersonal deficits; namely, withdrawing from the group and from you. If he wants to make more money in the future, then I would identify with him specifically what he needs to do to demonstrate that he is worth more (i.e., the activities and outcomes that he must pursue).

Second, you need to convene a meeting with both employees. This is not a “venting” session so much as it is an action planning session for how the two of them are going to work together in the future and what your role will be in supporting their efforts (e.g., monitoring progress, one-on-one feedback sessions, etc.). Ask each of them to take ownership of their piece of the situation. Ask them to make a public commitment to take action to make the situation better. Put it in writing. Set a follow-up date and establish criteria by which progress will be gauged. Importantly, make sure you do follow up.

Third, I would urge you to take a look at your performance evaluation form and the process you use in deploying it. My bet is that it more heavily weights factors having to do with work quality, quantity, and output. If this is the case, you will want to add other factors to your performance evaluation model. These can include such constructs as communication, problem solving, interpersonal relations, and so on. The point is to bring into better alignment the technical (i.e., “hard”) elements of the job with the interpersonal (i.e., “soft”) elements.

In summary, you need to help your employees to see that they each need to augment their technical capabilities with stronger interpersonal acumen. As we see time and time again, the best employees are those that not only are subject matter proficient, but also are able to work effectively with their colleagues.

Daniel A. Schroeder, Ph.D. is president of Brookfield-based Organization Development Consultants Inc. ( He can be reached at (262) 827-1901 or

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