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Sometimes, two particular people don’t work well together.

Have you ever known two people who don’t work well together, for no obvious reason? Maybe there’s someone you yourself don’t work well with.

I see this in my own work, particularly as a mediator: two reasonable, intelligent, highly qualified people find each other irritating and annoying. Both may be highly engaged otherwise, and contributing well to the organization’s profitability and ROI – just not when they’re working with each other.

This might be due to “idiopathic pairwise irritation (IPI).”

I call this phenomenon “idiopathic pairwise irritation,” or IPI, because in these cases there’s no obvious reason why these two people wouldn’t work well together. If there were, they could resolve the issue easily, or wouldn’t have an issue at all.

IPI isn’t related to rank, maturity, education etc.


If two of your talent experience IPI, you may be tempted to let one or possibly both of them go. Especially if they’re in high positions in the organization’s structure, you may feel – and rightly so – that they ought to have the interpersonal skills to work effectively despite any clashes in personality.

However, in my work I’ve noticed that position in an organization isn’t necessarily proportional to immunity to IPI. Neither is maturity, education, experience, or any other desirable quality you can think of. IPI is as random as “chemistry” is between actors. Think of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, especially in the original Star Trek, or Danny Glover and Mel Gibson in the “Lethal Weapon” series.

IPI isn’t due to character defects, incompetency, or malice.

Like my clients, your talent may think that there’s something wrong or deficient with the other person. Sometimes there is, but more often, people think that because it’s the most obvious explanation for why they don’t work well together or even get along professionally.

What can be done to alleviate IPI.

So what can you do if two of your highly engaged, valuable, key talent experience IPI? Here are some recommendations.

  1. Surface the IPI.
    Have a private discussion with each of them. Acknowledge their value to the organization, define IPI, and say that you’ve noticed that they suffer from it. Often, simply knowing what the problem is will reduce it significantly.
  2. Set up a short meeting with HR, a coach, or a mediator.
    If surfacing the IPI doesn’t alleviate the problem, create a space where the two people can develop guidelines to work together more effectively. For the highest-ranking talent, prefer using an external coach or mediator; studies show that an external coach or mediator is more effective at that level. If the meeting is with HR, ensure that the meeting isn’t incorporated into their employment record.
  3. Minimize their interactions.
    Yes, really. If you have the flexibility in your organization, have them work primarily with other people. There’s no reason to diminish their engagement simply because of IPI.

IPI doesn’t need to be a problem.

If two of your otherwise reasonable, engaged, intelligent, highly qualified people find each other irritating and annoying, it doesn’t mean you should let either of them go, or resign yourself to diminished profitability or ROI. Use the three recommendations to alleviate IPI, and let your talent put the problem behind them.

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