There’s little worse in the workplace than office politics, especially when it takes the form of an ongoing feud. This kind of energy spreads like wildfire, negatively igniting individuals in organisations and creating a crackling heat within. Weirdly, there is a part of human nature that basks in the dim light of this type of conflict. But WHY? What IS this irresistible and insatiable desire to witness a fight? From literature to pop culture, feuds have always exercised a powerful hold on the public imagination. Are office feuds really just a natural and inevitable aspect of our workplace lives? If so, what’s the best way to deal with them, and, if harnessed correctly, can they become a stimulant for creativity, motivation and competitive drive?
Most of us have had to grin and bear working with a colleague (or boss) who perennially drives us bats in our working lives. Working with others is simultaneously one of the most rewarding, yet most challenging things we can do. Fact. As the ever-cheery existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre put it, “Hell is other people.” Petty irritations, gossip-mongering, political manoeuvring, and very occasionally, out and out war, are all part and parcel of the ebb and flow of working life.
Take a brief look at our history books and you’ll soon discover just how pivotal deadly feuding has been to our so-called ‘civilisation.’ Bloody disputes, imprisonment, and countless executions tell the story of our own Royal family, from the War of the Roses to Queen Elizabeth I signing her own cousin’s death warrant. If these true stories weren’t enough, great works of friction (thank you) continue to whet our collective appetite for feuding, fighting and fisticuffs.
“There is no getting away from it: conflict is omnipresent”
Want to know where it all started? Ancient Greece (naturellement). At least the Greeks started the trend, and then Biblical brothers Cain and Abel only added fuel to the fire with a literary (if not literal) shake-up. Shakespeare’s star crossed lovers, and Milton’s mother of all feuds (between God and Satan in Paradise Lost), all attest to the fact that bloody rivalries make great stories. Then we have the “real life” tribalistic rivalries in sport, music and entertainment (cue Big Brother intro music), not to mention the monumental business feuds that have literally changed the world. Just think of Coca-Cola versus Pepsi, Facebook versus Twitter, or the thirty-five year battle between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. In the age of social media, we now also have to contend with a growing obsession with celebrity feuds, public letters on social and in the tabloids – even local community boards on social media present a platform for perpetual bickering that we can all join in with. There is no getting away from it – conflict is omnipresent.
THE SCIENCE BIT
There are few things that make for better entertainment than a bit of good old-fashioned mud slinging, and a ‘harmless’ office feud certainly livens up the working day. But what is it exactly that makes such negativity almost impossible to resist? Psychologist Gemma Cribb suggests that we are hardwired to pay more attention to situations that threaten others or ourselves in some way, and that paradoxically, empathy may be at the root of our collective cultural fascination.
“We want to get along with people so feuds elicit an emotional response from us”
Because life is infinitely more bearable (and survivable) if we are part of a group, conflict elicits an emotional response from us. Cribb explains that “we project ourselves into the situation, our emotions are engaged, we feel for the people involved or get emotionally stimulated as if we were involved.” At best, this encourages us to look at ourselves, examining our own beliefs and values. Because “who we side with tells us something about how we think and feel and how others think and feel when we gossip about it.” In short, feuds can normalise our experience, whilst giving us handy tips for what to do and what not to do the next time someone throws us some shade.
So is conflict a natural and thus inevitable part of our workplace and personal lives? Not if we get to what lies at its heart – our collective need to belong. Indeed, the focus on natural selection and “survival of the fittest” (the root of many a feud) is a dominant ideology that has distorted the legacy of Charles Darwin. Did you know that in The Descent of Man he only uses the famous “survival of the fittest” phrase twice, compared to the countless times he mentions “love,” “moral sensitivity” and “mutuality and reciprocity” as the real drivers of evolution?
But as ever, it takes us humans a LONG time to figure these things out. So at the risk of stating the obvious, if you’re currently in the midst of any kind of political feud and you’re struggling to avoid or inflict actual bloodshed, here are three handy things to think about. They may help you lessen the impact:
- Healthy, open and honest communication is key. Don’t just dump blame on the other person – take responsibility for your problem and identify the root of the issue. Take the upper hand and engage in adult discussion with your rival without involving others. Top tip: don’t involve alcoholic drinks or coffee in the discussion.
- It’s not all about you. Standing in the other person’s shoes will enable you to take a more diplomatic view and exercise your empathic intelligence muscles. Top tip: Don’t ACTUALLY stand in their shoes, it literally won’t help anyone.
- Keep your cool. Stay composed, positive, and use your work as a positive focus. When there is nothing to see, the flames always die down. In the wise words of Disney’s Frozen, “Let it go.” Life is short. Top tip: Launching into your own rendition of ‘Let it go’ should only be used as a final resort.
Healthy relationships built on honest communication and non-judgement (with even the trickiest of colleagues) may be difficult, but they’re worth it. Try to re-interpret other people’s weaknesses as strengths. You can test your ideas against the criticism of the really negative person in the office or use the pedant as devil’s advocate or to research the finer details of a project. Ultimately, you can’t change your co-workers, but your CAN change your reaction to them.