People love drama. Spectators delight when Real Housewives fight over who said what, when vegan YouTube stars are caught in the scandalous act of eating fish, and when hip-hop celebrities feud. But if the drama in question unfolds at our own workplaces, our first instinct is often to stay out of it.
That’s a mistake, according to Liane Davey, an organizational psychology expert and the author of the new book The Good Fight: Use Productive Conflict to Get Your Team and Organization Back on Track. For one thing, she says, drama between two coworkers inevitably impacts everyone else, too. Unresolved tension and hostility will make your whole team—or organization—dysfunctional.
Say you work at an automobile manufacturer, for example, and your boss is constantly shooting down your coworker’s objections about a car’s redesign. Your coworker gets discouraged and stops making suggestions at all. But it turns out that your coworker was right and the redesign is a total flop—so everyone loses their jobs, including you.
The case for intervention isn’t just practical; it’s also a moral issue. Davey points to the past few years’ revelations about widespread sexual harassment and abuse in the media and entertainment industries. “If the conflict on your team starts to take on a more sinister tone, you need to think about your obligation to step up,” she writes in The Good Fight. “When I think about the #MeToo movement and how people such as Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, or Kevin Spacey abused their power, it’s the witnesses’ roles that distress me most.”
Powerful people were only able to perpetuate their bad behavior because so many of their colleagues turned a blind eye, which normalized clear misconduct. Research on bullying shows that bystander intervention is the single most effective way to shut down the mistreatment of others. What’s true on the schoolyard is also true in the open office. “It’s the person with a little emotional detachment from the issues that’s going to be able to get to resolution,” Davey says.
So how do you know when it’s time to jump into the fray? Davey says bystanders should consider three questions:
- Would my intervening help to balance a situation with a power gap?
- Could I use my credibility or influence to make the situation better?
- Do I have a perspective on the issue that will help open up potential solutions?
If the answer to any one of these is “yes,” you should intervene. Here’s how to do it.
Picture this: You’re in the midst of a meeting that’s going nowhere, with two coworkers snapping at one another endlessly and neither one giving an inch. How do you break the cycle?
Dave recommends jumping in with the phrase, “I’m hearing two different truths here.” Then lay out each person’s argument. Maybe the head of product is worried that the timeline for a rollout is moving too fast, while the head of sales is more concerned with getting the product launched ASAP so the team can meet their yearly goals. Ideally, Davey says, you could get up and write this all down on a whiteboard—”people really feel validated when they see their words on a whiteboard.” Then say, “If both of those things are true, where do we go? Which do we address first?”
Making each person feel heard—and clarifying that multiple people can be right at once—should help diffuse their frustration with one another and open up the path to a more collaborative conversation.
Terry Gross, the longtime host of NPR’s Fresh Air, is renowned for her interviewing skills. She’s said a key ingredient to having a productive conversation is “being genuinely curious, and wanting to hear what the other person is telling you.”
Translating this approach to the office, Davey recommends that the next time your colleagues are at an impasse with one another, you try to turn the conversation away from an attempt to figure out the “right” solution, instead expressing a heartfelt interest in understanding the problem’s roots.
Imagine there’s a lot of turnover at your organization. One manager wants to give retention bonuses; another says there’s no budget for that. Round and round they go. At that point, Davey says, you can jump in to say, “It sounds like we agree there’s a problem with turnover. Tell me more about where you think that problem is coming from.” Reminding everyone that they share the same fundamental concern helps shift the energy in the room, and exploring the underlying reasons people are leaving the company may well lead the group toward a better, more creative way to keep employees on board.
A lot of conflicts at work aren’t just about finding a solution; they’re about finding a solution that meets certain criteria. Davey recalls working as a consultant at one company where the CEO and the general manager of a business unit were fighting over layoffs: the CEO was against, while the general manager was in favor. Davey asked each person what a good solution would look like.
As it turned out, the general manager was most invested in ensuring his division would at least break even. The CEO, meanwhile, was more concerned with the impact a layoff would have on morale and company culture. The two were never going to get anywhere in their disagreement until they understood one another’s underlying emotional concerns. “Help people articulate what’s important to them in a solution and what are the criteria in making a decision,” Davey advises. “If you get the criteria and options on the board, it becomes a boring and easy process…all the emotion comes out of it.”
The drama in question doesn’t have to be happening right in front of you in order to intervene. If a coworker comes to you with a grievance involving another colleague, Davey says, the first thing is to consider whether you think it’s legitimate or not.
If you think they’ve identified a real problem, Davey recommends validating their feelings and then turning the conversation toward action. If a coworker is upset about getting steamrolled during a meeting, for example, acknowledge why they would feel disrespected, then start brainstorming suggestions. You might say, “I’m also worried we rushed through your point too quickly and there is a legitimate concern we need to talk about. I think we need to get that back on the agenda—are you comfortable raising that with the boss?” By making yourself useful, you can both assure your colleague that they’re not insane for feeling rattled and redirect their focus toward resolution.
If the coworker’s complaint doesn’t actually seem like a big deal, Davey says it’s good to help them process their feelings while suggesting alternative perspectives: “I get that you’re feeling like you were belittled in the meeting, but that’s not how I interpreted it.” Give your coworker a different way of viewing the situation, and see if that helps them move on.
Often, we frame neutrality as a virtue. Consider the expression “I’m Switzerland,” which suggests a kind of high-minded resolve to remain above the fray between two warring factions.
But historical records show that Switzerland’s supposed neutrality during World War II meant being complicit with the Nazis in practice. “The Swiss vigorously blocked the entry of Jews attempting to flee Germany and occupied Europe,” Henry I. Sobel writes in a 1998 article for the journal American University International Law Review (pdf). “As early as 1938, at the suggestion of the Swiss Chief of Police, Bern requested that Berlin mark the passports of Jews with a ‘J’ to distinguish German Jews from German gentiles so that authorities could refuse them admission to Switzerland. Indeed, the great majority of those denied sanctuary in Switzerland perished in the German death camps.”
Positioning yourself as a neutral bystander doesn’t always involve such high stakes. But the example does suggest that sometimes “minding your own business” can mean allowing other people to get hurt. So the next time a conflict at work comes your way, take stock of whether you can be of help in the situation. If you can, don’t be Switzerland. Be an interventionist.