What the Experts Say
Whether or not you get involved will depend on how enmeshed you are in the situation. If either person approaches you to complain or to enlist your help, you have to respond in some way. And while you may not be their manager, you have a responsibility to make sure work gets done. “If it’s getting in the way of teamwork, then talk to them,” says Anna Ranieri, a career counselor, executive coach, and coauthor of How Can I Help?.
But intervening is not always a straightforward prospect. “Peer-to-peer conflict is often fuzzy,” says Roderick Kramer, a social psychologist and the William R. Kimball Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. It’s not always clear who’s responsible and you may not know what to do. “People often find themselves in over their head. They think they can intervene, make suggestions, feel good about themselves, and move the conflict forward in a constructive way. But that’s not always possible,” says Kramer. Here’s how to respond next time you find yourself in the middle of a coworker battle.
It can be hard to listen to people complain but sometimes that’s exactly what they need. “Allowing colleagues the space and time to talk it out is a real luxury in workplaces,” says Ranieri. “People often just want a safe place to vent and in doing so, may figure out on their own what they want to do.” Kramer agrees: “There are times that people are just frustrated and need to express that. Venting isn’t an effective long-term strategy. “Encourage people not to get caught in the trap of venting, ruminating, and gossiping about the situation,” says Kramer, because that won’t move things forward. “But there’s nothing wrong with tolerating a few complaints in the short term.” If you’re worried that by hearing one person out, you’ll upset the other (on small teams, it’s often obvious who’s talking to whom) make an effort to get both sides of the story. “At a minimum, you should keep a cordial relationship with the other person, but a better strategy is to demonstrate that you’re fully open to all your colleagues,” says Ranieri.
While listening to your colleague, show that you understand how hard the situation is. You can say, “I’m sorry this is happening,” or “It’s tough when two people can’t see eye to eye.” But you don’t have to — and shouldn’t — take sides. “Don’t endorse one person’s point of view,” says Ranieri. Stay neutral instead and speak from your own experience. Offer observations like, “It seemed like Jane was stressed out and didn’t mean what she said,” or “I know that Joe is a direct person and can sometimes come off as harsh.” The key, Ranieri says, is to “show that you know where your colleague is coming from but not go as far to say, ‘You’re right and he’s wrong.’” If you’re being pushed to choose a perspective, make it clear that you won’t: “You seem hurt but I can’t take sides because I have to work with both of you.”
Explain the impact of their fighting
After you’ve demonstrated your concern, make clear how the fighting is affecting the team. Ranieri suggests something like, “You two not getting along is hard for everyone and it’s preventing us from doing good work.” Help both parties see how the skirmish is hurting others so they are motivated to do something productive about it.
Offer advice cautiously
Before you give your two cents, ask your coworkers if they want your help. “We tend to offer unsolicited advice because we think we know better,” says Ranieri. But people might not want your opinion, so start by saying something like: “Would it be helpful if I suggested some ways to work this out?” Remember too that your particular perspective may not be helpful. “Maybe you’ve been through a workplace fight and the way you resolved it worked for you but it may not work for this situation,” Ranieri explains.
If your colleagues do want your advice, focus on making observations about what they might do, rather than concrete suggestions. Kramer suggests you think with each of them, or just the person confiding in you, about all the possible options and lay out a decision tree. “You should be more in problem-solving mode than gossip mode and together you can decide on the right intervention,” he says.
Broker a détente
Don’t rush to sit them down together, however. “Getting people into a room and letting them duke it out is not responsible,” says Kramer. “There are likely be asymmetries in their power or their abilities and you risk causing further damage to the relationship.” Of course, if the conflict has reached a crescendo — perhaps people are yelling — then you may have no option but to pull them into a meeting and quickly get to the root of the problem.
Ranieri points out that there are some people that can’t and won’t be helped. She says that psychotherapists call these “Yes, but” clients. “Yes, I could approach Jane but I think she should approach me first.” “Yes, I want things to be better, but that will never work.” So despite your best attempts, you may not see progress. If one person insists she’s right or refuses help, it may be time to retreat. In those cases, you can push back the next time she approaches you: “We’ve talked about this multiple times and it doesn’t seem like you’re ready to resolve it, so I guess it is what it is right now.”
Kramer and Ranieri agree that it’s rarely a good idea to involve the sparring coworkers’ boss (or bosses) unless the problem is truly intractable and impeding work. “That would escalate the situation and possibly make one or both people feel like a victim,” says Kramer. Also, once you’ve raised it to other people, you may now be seen as part of the problem in their eyes, though you might consider approaching your own superior for advice as a last resort.
Know your limits
“Remember that you aren’t a psychologist or a mediator,” says Kramer. “If the situation is outside your comfort zone or you think the disagreement is juvenile, there’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘This is not my problem.’” Adds Ranieri: “When you’re in the helping role, you need to make sure you take care of yourself. You don’t have to be an unpaid referee.” But always give one or both of your coworkers a next step to take. You may want to say, “I’m not sure I’m the right person to help you with this but you might want sit down together or find someone else.” Suggest a dispassionate third party who’s not part of the team hierarchy, perhaps an ombudsman, or someone from HR.
Principles to Remember
- Allow your coworkers to vent
- Empathize without taking sides
- Refer them to someone else if you feel you can’t help
- Throw your two cents in without checking that your advice is wanted
- Try to play peacekeeper if you don’t have the skills or the time
- Go to your coworkers’ boss unless the argument is untenable and disrupting work
Case study#1: Proceed cautiously
About a year ago, Rajit Kumar noticed that there was a problem brewing with two of his peers. It wasn’t overt — no yelling or banging tables — but Rajit saw that they often avoided each other and started to sit apart in meetings. The tension was affecting his team’s work so he wanted to get to the bottom of it. “I knew both of them reasonably well and I knew they were sensible, mature professionals,” he says, so “I tried to understand the issue first.” He invited one of them out for a drink and learned through casual conversation that the problems didn’t stem from one incident but a mix of things: “There was a great deal of misunderstanding that snowballed and led to mistrust and dislike towards each other,” he explains.
Over the next several months, Rajit talked to both parties about what had happened. “I had at least three or four discussions with each of them to understand the real nature of conflict,” he says. These conversations gave him the confidence to agree when the two people asked him to serve as a formal mediator. “We had a good discussion but I didn’t focus on the conflict or their personalities or behaviors,” he says. “I focused on our common goal of being an effective team.” He also suggested that the three of them continue to meet casually so they could work on building trust. It took time but eventually the two repaired their relationship, allowing the whole team to work well together again.
Case study #2: Defuse a tense situation
Vittoria was sitting at her desk one day when she heard loud voices coming from another part of the office. Two of her coworkers — let’s call them Alex and Brian — were having a heated argument. “They were very loud. Some people gathered around them and began to watch,” she says. “I didn’t know the specific reason for the fight but I knew there was a lot of tension at that time.” The firm, which offered legal advice and services to people and companies in debt, was in financial trouble, and there had been sporadic conflicts between Alex and Brian but nothing this serious.
Everyone else was frozen. “I realized that no one knew what to do and no one else was going to intervene,” Vittoria said. So she took action. “I slowly approached them and asked them to follow me,” she says. At first, they continued to yell but then she gently put a hand on each of their arms and repeated her request. The three of them went to a private corridor. “I didn’t ask anything at first. They were still too excited. I just offered them a glass of water,” she says. Once things were calmer, Vittoria pointed out that that the overall situation at the company was tense. “I described the conflict from my point of view to give them awareness of the tone in which they spoke. Then I told them that regardless of the reason for their fight they could deal with the issue in a different way,” she says. She also suggested that they might talk to the department head if there was a problem that couldn’t be resolved. “They did not react aggressively towards me. On the contrary, they realized that they had lost control,” she says. They thanked Vittoria and apologized to one another.