When Two of Your Coworkers Are Fighting – by Amy Gallo

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.

Allow venting
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.

Empathize
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.

Problem-solve together
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.

Beware resistance
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.”

Don’t escalate
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

Do:

  • Allow your coworkers to vent
  • Empathize without taking sides
  • Refer them to someone else if you feel you can’t help

Don’t:

  • 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.

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Amy Gallo is a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review. Follow her on Twitter at@amyegallo.

Inequality Is a Drag – by Paul Krugman

Liberals have generally viewed this as a trade-off worth making, arguing that it’s worth accepting some price in the form of lower G.D.P. to help fellow citizens in need. Conservatives, on the other hand, have advocated trickle-down economics, insisting that the best policy is to cut taxes on the rich, slash aid to the poor and count on a rising tide to raise all boats.

But there’s now growing evidence for a new view — namely, that the whole premise of this debate is wrong, that there isn’t actually any trade-off between equity and inefficiency. Why? It’s true that market economies need a certain amount of inequality to function. But American inequality has become so extreme that it’s inflicting a lot of economic damage. And this, in turn, implies that redistribution — that is, taxing the rich and helping the poor — may well raise, not lower, the economy’s growth rate.

You might be tempted to dismiss this notion as wishful thinking, a sort of liberal equivalent of the right-wing fantasy that cutting taxes on the rich actually increases revenue. In fact, however, there is solid evidence, coming from places like the International Monetary Fund, that high inequality is a drag on growth, and that redistribution can be good for the economy.

Earlier this week, the new view about inequality and growth got a boost from Standard & Poor’s, the rating agency, which put out a report supporting the view that high inequality is a drag on growth. The agency was summarizing other people’s work, not doing research of its own, and you don’t need to take its judgment as gospel (remember its ludicrous downgrade of United States debt). What S.& P.’s imprimatur shows, however, is just how mainstream the new view of inequality has become. There is, at this point, no reason to believe that comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted is good for growth, and good reason to believe the opposite.

Specifically, if you look systematically at the international evidence on inequality, redistribution, and growth — which is what researchers at the I.M.F. did — you find that lower levels of inequality are associated with faster, not slower, growth. Furthermore, income redistribution at the levels typical of advanced countries (with the United States doing much less than average) is “robustly associated with higher and more durable growth.” That is, there’s no evidence that making the rich richer enriches the nation as a whole, but there’s strong evidence of benefits from making the poor less poor.

But how is that possible? Doesn’t taxing the rich and helping the poor reduce the incentive to make money? Well, yes, but incentives aren’t the only thing that matters for economic growth. Opportunity is also crucial. And extreme inequality deprives many people of the opportunity to fulfill their potential.

Think about it. Do talented children in low-income American families have the same chance to make use of their talent — to get the right education, to pursue the right career path — as those born higher up the ladder? Of course not. Moreover, this isn’t just unfair, it’s expensive. Extreme inequality means a waste of human resources.

Consider, for example, what we know about food stamps, perennially targeted by conservatives who claim that they reduce the incentive to work. The historical evidence does indeed suggest that making food stamps available somewhat reduces work effort, especially by single mothers. But it also suggests that Americans who had access to food stamps when they were children grew up to be healthier and more productive than those who didn’t,which means that they made a bigger economic contribution. The purpose of the food stamp program was to reduce misery, but it’s a good guess that the program was also good for American economic growth.

The same thing, I’d argue, will end up being true of Obamacare. Subsidized insurance will induce some people to reduce the number of hours they work, but it will also mean higher productivity from Americans who are finally getting the health care they need, not to mention making better use of their skills because they can change jobs without the fear of losing coverage. Over all, health reform will probably make us richer as well as more secure.

Will the new view of inequality change our political debate? It should. Being nice to the wealthy and cruel to the poor is not, it turns out, the key to economic growth. On the contrary, making our economy fairer would also make it richer. Goodbye, trickle-down; hello, trickle-up.

The Water Cooler Runs Dry – by Frank Bruni

If you’re closing in on 50 but want to feel much, much older, teach a college course. I’m doing that now, at 49, and hardly a class goes by when I don’t make an allusion that prompts my students to stare at me as if I just dropped in from the Paleozoic era.

Last week I mentioned the movie “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” Only one of the 16 students had heard of it. I summarized its significance, riffling through the Depression, with which they were familiar, and Jane Fonda’s career, with which they weren’t. “Barbarella” went sailing over their heads. I didn’t dare test my luck with talk of leg warmers and Ted Turner.

I once brought up Vanessa Redgrave. Blank stares. Greta Garbo. Ditto. We were a few minutes into a discussion of an essay that repeatedly invoked Proust’s madeleine when I realized that almost none of the students understood what the madeleine signified or, for that matter, who this Proust fellow was.

And these are young women and men bright and diligent enough to have gained admission to Princeton University, which is where our disconnect is playing out.

The bulk of that disconnect, obviously, is generational. Seemingly all of my students know who Gwyneth Paltrow is. And with another decade or two of reading and living and being subjected to fossils like me, they’ll assemble a richer inventory of knowledge and trivia, not all of it present-day.

But the pronounced narrowness of the cultural terrain that they and I share — the precise limits of the overlap — suggests something additional at work. In a wired world with hundreds of television channels, countless byways in cyberspace and all sorts of technological advances that permit each of us to customize his or her diet of entertainment and information, are common points of reference dwindling? Has the personal niche supplanted the public square?

Both literally and figuratively, the so-called water-cooler show is fading fast, a reality underscored by a fact that I stumbled across in last week’s edition of The New Yorker: In the mid-1970s, when the sitcom “All in the Family” was America’s top-rated television series, more than 50 million people would tune in to a given episode. That was in a country of about 215 million.

I checked on the No. 1 series for the 2012-13 television season. It was “NCIS,” an episode of which typically drew fewer than 22 million people, even counting those who watched a recording of it within a week of its broadcast. That’s out of nearly 318 million Americans now.

“NCIS” competes against an unprecedented bounty of original programming and more ways to see new and old shows than ever, what with cable networks, subscription services, YouTube, Apple TV and Aereo. Yahoo just announced that it was jumping into the fray and, like Netflix and Amazon, would develop its own shows.

In movies, there’s a bevy of boutique fare that never even opens in theaters but that you can order on demand at home. In music, streaming services and Internet and satellite radio stations showcase a dizzying array of songs and performers, few of whom attain widespread recognition. In books, self-publishing has contributed to a marked rise in the number of titles, but it doesn’t take an especially large crowd of readers for a book to become a best seller. Everyone’s on a different page.

With so very much to choose from, a person can stick to one or two preferred micro-genres and subsist entirely on them, while other people gorge on a completely different set of ingredients. You like “Housewives”? Savor them in multiple cities and accents. Food porn? Stuff yourself silly. Vampire fiction? The vein never runs dry.

I brought up this Balkanization of experience with Hendrik Hartog, the director of the American studies program at Princeton, and he noted that what’s happening in popular culture mirrors what has transpired at many elite universities, where survey courses in literature and history have given way to meditations on more focused themes.

“There’s enormous weight given to specialized knowledge,” he said. “It leaves an absence of connective tissue for students.” Not for nothing, he observed, does his Princeton colleague Daniel Rodgers, an emeritus professor of history, call this the “age of fracture.”

It has enormous upsides, and may be for the best. No single, potentially alienating cultural dogma holds sway. A person can find an individual lens and language through which his or her world comes alive.

And because makers of commercial entertainment don’t have to chase an increasingly apocryphal mass audience, they can produce cultish gems, like “Girls” on HBO and “Louie” on FX.

But each fosters a separate dialect. Finding a collective vocabulary becomes harder. Although I’m tempted to tell my students that they make me feel like the 2,000-year-old man, I won’t. I might have to fill them in first on Mel Brooks.