We’re not having enough conflict. We need more conflict to trigger innovation, mitigate risks, surface issues that could erode trust, and to advocate for ourselves. Although you know intellectually that working through the conflict is important, the voices inside your head give you so many reasons why you should avoid it. One of those voices tell you to “mind your own business.” Should you mind your own business when you see conflict on your team?
In most cases, the answer is no. How can you justify poking your nose in?
First, if there is a conflict debt that is affecting your team or impacting your company, I would argue that it is your business. When your boss is unwilling to prioritize, it’s you that has to stretch yourself across too many projects. When your teammates are passive-aggressive, it’s you who has to deal with the unresolved issues and the inefficient work arounds. When individuals fail to stand up for themselves, it’s you who has to listen to their pessimistic views on the world. The vast majority of conflict debt on your team becomes your business.
A second reason to ignore the “mind your own business” mantra is that you might actually be in a much better position to help with the conflict if you aren’t directly involved.
I first started thinking about this when I heard parenting expert Barbara Collaroso talk about The Bully, The Bullied, and the Bystander? It’s research that shows that bullying is a dynamic among three parties. We all wish the bully would behave differently and we hope the bullied will stand up for himself, but the person with the best chance to end bullying in the moment is the bystander.
The same is true in teams. I use different terms, but the idea is the same. There are certainly wicked people (or at least people who behave wickedly). There are also wounded people; the ones who feel victimized and are beyond doing anything to make the situation better. In these situations, it’s the witness—the one with some emotional distance—who has the best chance to intervene constructively.
I mentioned in a previous post how this dynamic is playing out in the sexual harassment cases flooding the headlines. At no point do we have evidence that Harvey Weinstein, the wicked one, repented of his own volition and decided to change his ways. It took years (and in some cases, decades) for those wounded and victimized by him to muster the courage to speak. The people who really let us down in these cases were the assistants, the HR departments, the lawyers…the witnesses who knew but did nothing.
It doesn’t have to be something so heinous for the same dynamic to hold. Imagine two people on your team who are becoming increasingly hostile toward each other. They need to get the issues on the table and to resolve them for the good of everyone involved. Often, one is using unsavory scare tactics while the other folds under the pressure. There is little reason to believe that the wicked person will yield, given that she is having success with her approach. Unfortunately, there is also little hope that the person on the receiving end will muster the courage (or find the right words) to fight back effectively. You are in a much better position from the sidelines to surface the issue and help them work toward a solution.
There is a near-infinite number of situations where you, as the witness, are the best person to draw out a conflict and help move it to a satisfactory resolution. Next time you overhear gossip or back stabbing, see people knowingly ignore the agreed-upon plan, or suspect two people are trying to undermine one another, think differently about your role. Each of these situations is a great time to pay off your team’s conflict debt rather than “minding your own business.”
I’m curious, tell me your thoughts about getting into someone else’s conflict in the comments.