Business Psychology - Latest Findings




Article No. 287
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Workplace Feuds

A new finding offers a way to prevent feuds from taking root.

"Don’t blame me.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “If he has a problem, why are you talking with me?” “She started it.” “. . . because I have nothing to say to him.”

When you sense something wrong among your people and ask what the problem is, these replies are never good news. These replies tell you there is something going on, and it’s most likely a feud . . . a knock-down, take-no-prisoners, never-give-up feud. Such things are never good for business.

Consider, for example, the case of Joe and Pete. Joe was very smart, and he was quick with his words. Pete wasn’t smart at all, but he was very strong. Both Joe and Pete were bullies in their own way. Joe could see through the folly of many of the things Pete said, and he felt he was doing a service to point them out. Unfortunately, these “lessons” usually occurred in front of young women co-workers who Pete especially wanted to impress.

Pete wanted people to know that he was a bad dude and often spoke of violent things he had done and wanted to do. He illustrated such speeches with wide gestures, often delivering vicious punches to the air in front of him. Occasionally, he uttered Joe’s name as he struck the air, and the threat implied by such actions was not lost on Joe.

One day, Pete came to work dreading yet another embarrassment because of something stupid he had done at the end of his shift the previous day. Joe knew all about it, so Pete cornered Joe where they would not be overheard, and he warned Joe to say nothing about the previous day or there would be consequences. That incident was the trigger for Joe and for Pete, too, and the feud was on. In the weeks, months, and years that followed, Joe and Pete worked side by side, but they never worked together as a team, and they seldom spoke. They avoided each other, and although each could depend upon the other not to take revenge, each could also be sure the other person would never offer any help. This feud would last until one of them quit or died. Joe and Pete are a supervisor’s worst nightmare.

Karl Aquino, from the University of Delaware is interested in the powerful dynamics that fuel workplace feuds, and he recently carried out two studies that revealed a mechanism that prevents them from getting started. That is a remarkable contribution. Here’s what he learned.

Feuds have a trigger, an insult or injury that arouses hurt feelings and intense anger. These trigger points also result in decisions. The injured party decides what to do next, often choosing between seeking revenge (getting even) or avoiding the other person. It is this decision which actually begins the feud.

Aquino recognized that some victims of harmful comments or actions make other choices than revenge or avoidance. Some victims forgive the other person and carry on as though nothing has happened. Other victims keep their anger and hurt feelings to themselves and act as though the insult hadn’t occurred. They act normally, even though they don’t feel that way. Aquino labeled the first forgiveness and the second reconciliation. Rather than two typical responses, Aquino studied these four reactions: revenge, avoidance, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

Aquinos’ research explored several factors he believed would influence the decision that follows hurt feelings, but he found only one factor to consistently have an effect. He labeled it the procedural justice climate.

Organizations follow formal procedures. These procedures guide managers and employees in responding to common events and needs in the ongoing life of the firm. Aquino examined five procedures: evaluating employee performance, giving promotions, giving pay raises, disciplining employees, and terminating employees.

Supervisors have feelings about these procedures. Some supervisors find them to be a burden and find ways to avoid following them. Other supervisors do their best to follow proper procedures and let their people know that they think it is important to do so. The first supervisors promote a weak procedural justice climate. The second supervisors promote a strong procedural justice climate. When supervisors resist formal procedures, they find themselves acting out of emotion. When supervisors embrace formal procedures, they act rationally, and their actions are more likely to be perceived as fair.

Aquino found that when supervisors create a procedural justice climate that employees feel is fair, employees are much more likely to choose to reconcile with those who insult or injure them rather than to seek revenge or avoidance. They extend acts of goodwill toward the offender even though they don’t feel like forgiving the offense, and the effect is to prevent feuds from taking root.

The lesson for supervisors is clear. If you don’t want feuds, if you want your people to act rationally in emotionally charged situations, you must show them how it is done. You do that by creating a climate where rational actions are common and expected. You create this climate yourself by how you conduct yourself in the emotionally charged tasks involving evaluating employees, promotions, pay raises, discipline, and termination.

Your formal procedures may well be a burden, but the benefits of embracing them far outweigh the costs of avoiding them.

Reference: Aquino, Karl, Thomas Tripp, and Robert Bies (2006) Getting Even or Moving On? Power, Procedural Justice, and Types of Offense as Predictors of Revenge, Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Avoidance in Organizations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91(3), 653-668. www.businesspsych.org

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