When "just work it out" creates more trouble

I've been sick this week and have been lying down on the job with parenting my kids. I've been sleeping a lot in the evenings (or just zoning out on the couch while I try to drink fluids) and my kids have been doing the stuff they're supposed to do (mostly), which is the benefit of having a teen and a tween instead of little kids who need to be directed. But one thing that's been happening is that my older one has been mean to his younger brother and I haven't been catching it and setting up any expectations for better behavior. They've been dealing with each other on their own, and it's become a little lopsided.

Not coincidentally, I've been talking to clients and friends who are dealing with situations in which one employee is either bullying others or simply blocking action so no one can get anything else done. And management hasn't been stepping in to censure or fire the problematic employee because they want everyone to "just work it out."


There's this fundamental misconception that people are just going to be able to work things out and be harmonious and work together, as siblings or coworkers. And that's clearly Just Not True. First of all, not everyone wants things to work out or wants harmony. In every work-related situation I consulted on this week, the employee creating the blocks was doing so specifically to attempt to preserve power. And my teen is messing with his brother because he thinks it's fun. The only people who want harmony in these situations are the people who can't create it (because the other person is causing the problem) or the manager/parent (um, me) who isn't stepping in. 

Second, allowing both parties in a dispute to just resolve it on an even playing field only makes sense in a situation in which both (or all parties) have the same intentions and weight of risk of the outcome of the dispute resolution process. Basically, we're assuming there's a free market of intentions and that all other things being equal, the logical course of action is going to make the most sense and everyone will agree with it. Insert your own joke about how Milton Friedman must never have met YOUR kids, because there's no such thing as a free market of intentions in a conflict situation.

If we were in the same room, I'd talk with my hands or use M&Ms to show you how this all plays out, but we're not, so let me just go back to Game Theory and use numbers to explain it: 

Let's say that Person X is trying to hoard information about something I need to get done at work, and I can't do my job effectively because she won't tell me what she knows. So our boss tells us to go into the conference room and talk it out, ladies. Going into this conversation/confrontation, I'm 100% invested in this, because if I can't get her to lay off the gatekeeping and just let the info come to me, I'm hosed. I can't get my job done. At the same time, she's just trying to stay in power and she knows there's nothing I can do to her (because if there was our boss would already have told her to cut it out), so she comes in invested maybe 30% in this negotiation.

So I'm at 100% risk and she's at 30% risk, before we even walk into the room. Now, as all good faith negotiations go, we each use a lot of "I statements" and we take turns with the talking stick and blah blah blah. THE ASSUMPTION IS THAT BOTH OF OUR POSITIONS AND FEELINGS ARE EQUALLY VALID. No one penalizes her for being a jerk who's trying to screw with my ability to get my job done. No one gives me credit for just trying to come in and do my job well every day. We're assumed to be equal. So then the solution we arrive at involves each of us compromising equally, 50/50. I give 50% and she gives 50%.

Now do the math: 

Me: 100% x 50% = 1.0 x 0.5 = 0.5 = 50%
Her: 30% x 50% = 0.3 x 0.5 = 0.15 = 15%

So I got penalized 50% FOR A SITUATION I DIDN'T EVEN CREATE and she got penalized 15% for deliberately messing with my job and life and ability to feed my children.

And I still don't even completely have her out of my business, because we compromised.

You can go in and substitute any situation in which one person is harassing another person or blocking another person, about video games or chores or project metrics or who gets to ride in the front seat or program funding or face time with the CEO or meeting deadlines or anything that happens at home or work. This is why you can't go into couples' counseling with an abuser. This is why you can't go into mediation with a vendor who has no legal repercussions for not fulfilling a contract. It's all about risk and investment, and the problem of assuming that both parties get equal say and equal priority.

So, what does this all mean? It means that if you're a parent, please please don't do any of that "I don't care who started it; I'm going to finish it" crap we grew up with that assumes a free market of intentions and ability to change a situation. Instead, if you notice that one of your kids is consistently the aggressor, make that a no-win situation for them (without involving the other kid, if possible) to guide them into better behavior toward their sibling.

And it means that if you're a manager, step in. Don't tell your employees to hash it out on their own. That's lazy and cowardly, for one thing. You can be conflict-avoidant on your own time, but if you're being paid to run a team, run the team. Spend some time and do some due diligence on what the underlying dynamics are so you can identify who's doing the blocking. And then require better behavior of them. If they can't stop, they need to move out of your team. You cannot sacrifice the entire team and your employees who are 100% invested because you're afraid to fire someone who's trying to hoard power or prevent the team or others from doing the best work.

Here's a plug for my RISWS process for managers: It's a low-stress, high-reward way to figure out what the flow is in your department so you can see this stuff coming and head it off before it becomes a big problem OR you can gather the evidence you need to be able to fire someone who is taking the whole department down. Anyone acting in good faith benefits from using this process and anyone who's not acting in good faith gets flushed out.

If you are an employee in a department in which the manager won't take any action to guide a bullying/blocking employee into better behavior: Ouch. I'm sorry. It's not you. And you can't fix this. And being kinder and nicer and more accommodating to the blocker is only going to make things worse (because they'll gain even more power from that and less investment, while you now have even more investment). You could refer your manager to my RISWS process (because we spend time working on interpersonal dynamics in the department as I teach the manager the process) if you think they'd go for it. You could find another job someplace else (that's probably the simplest thing to do, as long as you don't carry any bad feelings about not having been able to fix the situation on your own). You could see if you can go over your manager's head (DICEY, and I don't recommend it unless you really have a direct line that won't come back and bite you later). Whatever you decide to do, just know that it isn't you. 

If you want to read more about Game Theory in a way that you don't have to be a mathematician or strategist to understand, check out The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist's Guide to Success in Business and Life by Dixit and Nalebuff.