The Leadership Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question, “How do you resolve an office feud?” is written by Jo Owen, social entrepreneur and author of Global Teams: How the Best Teams Achieve High Performance.
Working in the corporate world before becoming a social entrepreneur, I found it hard to avoid feuds. Claiming credit and spreading blame went with the turf. In my mind, I was, of course, always the innocent party in every dispute. This gave me a sense of moral superiority, which was comforting to me and annoying to my colleagues.
I was lucky to have a wonderful mentor. He flew serenely above all the turbulence. He not only avoided feuds, but he was the one partner who everyone wanted to work for. In one particularly tense meeting, he slipped me a cryptic note saying “Benice.” I was too focused on winning the argument to understand what he meant. Afterward, I asked him who Benice was, and what I was meant to do about her.
“It was not ‘Benice,’” he said. “I was telling you to be nice. It is better to win a friend than win an argument. Arguments lead to feuds; allies lead to success.”
I took him out to lunch and asked him what was behind this mysterious strategy of being nice. He laid out four simple lessons that I have tried to copy ever since. I will never master all of the lessons, but they have eliminated feuds from my life. My career has become more enjoyable and successful as a result.
Avoid feuds altogether
The best way to deal with a conflict is to avoid it. It takes two to feud, so if you find yourself in the middle of one, look in the mirror to see who is actually responsible. Thinking positively about your coworkers makes a difference. Assume that they want to do their best. A misunderstanding does not have to be a conspiracy against you. If there is a misunderstanding, sort it out fast. That means talking to the person, not emailing. Email is good at building an evidence trail. It is not good at building trust or understanding. Pick up the phone or walk across the office.
We communicate more than ever, but understand each other less than ever. Understanding comes from listening, not talking. You have two ears and one mouth: Use them in that proportion. Let your coworker do the talking. Once they feel they have been heard and understood, they will feel respected. Only then will they be open to hearing your point of view. Keep your discussions private. Involving your boss makes you look weak. And if you gossip to colleagues, what you say will be magnified and distorted—so steer clear of that as well.
Trust is the glue that keeps teams together. Trust is both professional and personal. You can build personal trust simply by listening to people. Showing you respect someone is powerful: It is hard to have beef with someone who respects you. Professional trust is about credibility and reliability. Always deliver on expectations. Remember that reliability is in the eye of the beholder. That means it is better to have a difficult conversation at the outset about expectations than to have an even more difficult conversation at the end about results.
Focus on the future
Analyzing the past is dangerous. The “he said, she said” debate starts the blame game and keeps the feud going. Instead, focus on what you need to achieve together. A common prize creates a mutual win-win. Success buries the past.
As my mentor laid out his rules, I felt uneasy. The rules might avoid conflicts, but they also sounded weak. I asked him if he ever needed to make a stand and fight his corner.
“Of course, you have to know when to fight,” he said. “Only do so when there is a prize worth fighting for, you know you can win, and there is no other way of achieving your goal.”
Most feuds fail all of these three rules of corporate warfare. Even if you win the battle, you lose the war, because each battle creates another enemy. Your competition should be in the marketplace, not sitting at a desk nearby.