SmithGroup workplace practice leader Angie Lee says that parenthood has been one of the best ways shes learned how to deal with staff conflicts. "You love them all the same way," Lee notes, "but sometimes, you have to play referee."

SmithGroup workplace practice leader Angie Lee says that parenthood has been one of the best ways she's learned how to deal with staff conflicts. "You love them all the same way," Lee notes, "but sometimes, you have to play referee."

Credit: Mike Morgan

No one goes to work with the intention of causing chaos, but it’s inevitable that, for one reason or another, people will allow something to disrupt team—or even office—harmony. What then? Angie Lee is the workplace practice leader for SmithGroup. Based in Washington, D.C., her reach within the 11-office firm is national. Part of Lee’s portfolio is dealing with SmithGroup’s own work environment—and managing the complex interactions that occur within a national firm. “It’s like herding cats to some degree,” she says. And Lee’s 25-plus years of experience have seen her herd a lot of cats.

What’s the most common conflict, and how do you handle it?
People don’t see eye-to-eye. Deal with it right away. I want to talk about things if they’re not going well. The more you talk, the more you understand the other person’s point of view.

What’s the key?
We’re in a relationship business. Eighty percent of leading a successful project is working together. When things go well, you don’t notice it. When things are not going well, you need to put on your psychologist hat. You have to develop personal relationships with the people on your team. As a leader, my job is to understand people’s agendas and career aspirations so that I can help them succeed in their respective roles. Empathy is important.

How do you build these connections?
We get together organizationally three times a year at what we call national practice conferences. We have biweekly meetings via video. It’s not perfect, but it is face-to-face. We talk about opportunities, issues, and topics. The best way to get to know people is on projects.

How has this changed over the past 20 years?
I don’t see a lot of differences. People argue about the same things they argued about 20 years ago. Often, it’s petty stuff that gets blown up into a big issue.

Do generational differences cause problems?
Our principals are now migrating us to open-plan offices, but we are not 100 percent bought into the concept. The boomers are used to having a private office with a door. Twenty-somethings don’t care if you stick them in the corner, if they have the coolest tools. Give them an iPhone or an iPad, and they’re happy as clams.

How do you deal with deep-seated personal issues?
You have to understand personalities. People are motivated differently. I don’t like to have people come to me to talk about another person. That’s a pet peeve. I get that a lot: People come to me, take me aside, and complain about somebody else. I always try to get everybody together, get away from the office, and hash it out.

And that solves the problem?
Sometimes it doesn’t work because certain individuals just don’t get along—and there’s not a lot you can do about it. They still have to work together, but you hope that because we’re all professionals, they can put aside their differences and focus on the work. I can think of only one example in my career where we had to let somebody go. They were like a cancer in the department.

What’s your final advice?
Don’t get sucked into office politics. Come to work with a clear mind and do the best work. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Make sure people understand where you’re going. By doing the best work and bringing your colleagues along with you, it’s a much more enjoyable place to be. When you have bad circumstances in terms of environment, it takes a lot of energy to deal with it. And then your energy is not put towards the work itself.