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The Gut Response That’s Killing Your Career

It’s instinct to hold a grudge, but recovering from conflict in the workplace is a key skill for your career.

by Janice Holly Booth

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It’s a common sight after any sporting match: the loser congratulates the winner with a handshake, fist bump, hug or another form of physical touch—a public gesture of good sportsmanship. Pretty straightforward, right? Not so fast. Researchers at Harvard’s Human Evolutionary Biology Department recently discovered that men and women respond very differently after conflict on the playing field. Men are far more likely to make peace with their competitors with a handshake, back pat or even a hug.

Women’s reluctance to make conciliatory gestures translates to the workplace, where it can have repercussions for their careers. But by recognizing their tendency to hold a grudge, and deliberately changing that behavior, women can remove a potential roadblock to their success.

Study co-author Joyce Benenson, a professor of psychology at Emmanuel College, became curious about reconciliatory behaviors after observing that male chimps were more likely than females to reconcile following in-your-face conflict. Benenson wanted to know if the same were true of humans.

”Studies have shown that when two females compete in the workplace they feel much more damaged afterward.”

"Most people think of females as being less competitive, or more cooperative, so you might expect there would be more reconciliation between females," Benenson tells Life Reimagined. "After conflicts, in males you see these very warm handshakes and embraces, even in boxing after they've almost killed each other." But not in women. Benenson believes the study, which was published in the August 2016 issue of Current Biology, lends credence to the male warrior hypothesis—the notion that males invest in keeping good feelings alive after conflict in order to ensure they have allies they can call on in the future.

So why wouldn’t that work for women, too?

Benenson and her co-author Richard Wrangham, the Ruth B. Moore professor of biological anthropology at Harvard, believe this behavior goes back to the earliest days of human history, when gender roles were starkly defined. Within their groups, males cultivated large friendship networks, while females focused on family relationships and a few close friends. There’s a community benefit when unrelated men prevail against external groups, while women gain more from interacting with family and friends. Benenson says it makes sense that women should reconcile more with these people, and men with a larger group of unrelated, same-sex peers.

This gender-related behavior can create problems for women in the workforce. "We're talking about women having a harder time when they have to compete with other women," Benenson says. "Studies have shown that when two females compete in the workplace they feel much more damaged afterward. I think this is something human resources professionals should be aware of, so they can mitigate it." Women can resolve to improve the situation themselves, even if they have to fight their instincts to do so. Job one is not getting hung up on whether your foe extends an olive branch first. “I think knowing the results of this study may soften the blow a bit when another woman does not reconcile after a conflict,” says Benenson, adding that it may be a good idea to take the first step yourself. “It is eye-opening to watch men compete with one another, then agree to cooperate later on. Men forgive other men sometimes for egregious acts that I don't think should be forgiven. Women have higher standards and in that way, we improve societal norms—in treatment of the vulnerable, the environment and so forth. Nevertheless, I do think that women forgive family members all the time, and we could extend this more to one another.”

Learning to reconcile after a conflict isn’t just about workplace harmony. There’s another reason for women to manage their workplace relationships: so they can work together to mitigate the challenges of gender inequality. In a September 2015 study of women in the workplace, LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company found that women are underrepresented at every level of the corporate pipeline, with the disparity greatest at senior levels of leadership. Women occupied just 17 percent of the C-suite, a modest 1 percent improvement since a similar study was conducted in 2012. The study found that women face an uneven playing field, with odds of advancement lower at every level. Another key finding: Men predominantly have male networks, while women have mostly female or mixed networks. Given that men are more likely to hold senior leadership positions, women may end up with less access to the high-level relationships that could help them advance.

That’s even more reason for women to make a conscious effort to address their post-conflict behavior, says Benenson. If we could more easily cooperate with colleagues, she explains, “we then could overcome conflicts which would allow us to establish relationships to advance women's needs.”

According to the HR Council, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness and taking action on labor force issues, workplace conflict is both inevitable and manageable. Successful conflict resolution depends on effective communication; the HR Council offers these seven strategies for healing any rifts that can damage workplace relationships.

1. Address the situation immediately, directly and respectfully. Instead of blaming or accusing someone who stole your moment in the spotlight, you might say, “Can we talk about what happened in the board room today? I’d like to get your perspective.”

2. Speak directly to the person involved. This is the mature way to handle a grievance. Gossiping, at any level of the ladder, is viewed by management as disruptive and unprofessional and could hinder your chances for a promotion.

3. Separate the person from the problem. Remind yourself that the problem is the issue or the relationship, not the individual herself.

4. Try to understand objectively what is behind the other person’s actions rather than reacting right away. Remember, you probably know only part of the story. Seek more information, and you may find that your own position softens or changes altogether.

5. Examine your own contributions to the situation. Take responsibility for your role in the conflict. A problem between two people is never caused by just one of them.

6. Be clear in your communication so the situation doesn’t become complicated by misunderstandings. You may want to fire off an email when someone’s statement hits you wrong, but you’re better off waiting until you cool down. Even if you’re not angry, consider your words carefully—once you’ve spoken or written, you can’t take them back.

7. Reinforce any positive changes, even small ones, made by your foe. To make your work relationships benefit you down the line, you need to nurture them, even the difficult ones. You don’t have to go overboard with false enthusiasm or forced smiles, but if your nemesis brings you coffee, thank her sincerely (before checking the beverage for poison).

It might seem that any behavior that’s rooted in evolution would be impossible to change, but Benenson says we should try, and try with enthusiasm. “When we become aware of something, we can make efforts to change our instinctual responses.” In time, gender inequality in the workplace may become as outdated as rotary-dial phones, but until then, women can give themselves an edge simply by creating—and nurturing—their own network of allies.