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Inequality on the Rise? Workers of America Adapt

02/14/2015 11:01 am ET | Updated Apr 16, 2015

A few years ago, we interviewed an office manager, who we'll call Jennifer here, for a small manufacturing company, who had reportedly undergone an abrupt change in her workplace behavior. Highly organized, knowledgeable and precise, Jennifer had always been skillful in her role. Her team viewed her as a thoughtful, powerful advocate, who could effectively stand up for them when necessary. As one of her direct reports put it, "She is a fair, strong manager; I think of her as a role model for me and the other women who work here."

But then a new site leader--let's call him George--took over at Jennifer's company. He quickly became known throughout the company as "The Commandant." He was decisive, contentious, demanding and demeaning: a can-do leader.

George rarely asked Jennifer for her opinion; he just told her what to do and she seemed to put up with it. Her staff was shocked. "She used to be so assertive with the previous boss, but now she acts like a servant, just quietly taking orders". When George referred to her as "my bookkeeper," Jennifer responded with a polite smile. When he asked her to run out and get him a Café Latte, she did. When he interrupted her in meetings, she did not complain. Her colleagues struggled to understand her subservience. "She must be afraid for her job," said one of her assistants. "But that's crazy. She has a great reputation in this company."

What happened to this smart, assured manager?

She adapted.

In a series of studies published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior this past fall, we found that people who strategically adapt their approaches to conflict to best address the tensions they face at work, fare better. They read challenging situations more carefully, consider their short and long-term objectives, and then cater their resolution strategies to the specific situations in front of them in order to increase their chances of success.

While from the perspective of an outsider observer, it might seem that Jennifer was passive and unnecessarily submissive with George, she was actually employing a carefully selected strategy of conflict management. Suddenly finding herself in a situation we call unhappy tolerance - working for a domineering boss, who she hoped to maintain a collegial relationship with--she considered her priorities and determined the most effective path toward achieving her goals. She knew she had options; she could probably change companies, but she had already invested several years at this one. She also knew that the company had another site--a larger one with more opportunities for internal advancement--near the city where she grew up and hoped to live in again someday.

Realizing that her long-term goals would best be met by staying in her current job and working her way to a promotion at the company's other location, she employed a bit of strategic appeasement: rather than turning to the assertive, stand-your-ground mode that had helped her in the past, she laid low while increasing her new boss's dependence on her, shifting the nature of their relationship from contentious to cooperative. After two years Jennifer was promoted, partly on George's recommendation. She got to move to the city she preferred and received a substantial raise. Her strategic appeasement had a very impressive return on investment.

Jennifer's story is a familiar one to those of us in our 40s and 50s who were born into the American working class and raised in a world where getting ahead required long hours of hard work and tenacity--often in the face of unsupportive, potentially oppressive management. Many of us have lived the American Dream of getting ahead and making better lives for ourselves than our parents had by working doggedly, going to college, and, once in a while, asking for help.

But things are very different today for the working class. Between 1947-1972, the average hourly wage adjusted for inflation grew 76%, but since 1972 it has risen only 4%. Incomes of the bottom 90% of Americans grew only $59 (adjusted for inflation) from 1966-2011, while incomes for the top 10% grew by $116,071. During the same period, real incomes increased for the top 5% of Americans by 72.7%, while the bottom 20% saw a decrease in real income of 7.4%.

The American Dream has been replaced with a nightmare for the working class; the harder you work, and the more jobs you take on, the more you seem to lose ground. This leads to even harder lives, and too often to toxic frustration, a deadening sense of helplessness and health problems like addiction, depression, and obesity.

Recently, President Obama and the Republican congress declared the economic crisis of the working class a critical issue for our country. They have proposed some promising policies, but given the extraordinary polarization and dysfunction in Washington, we should not expect to see relief for the working class anytime soon.

So what can a hard working American do to get ahead?

Adapt.

As Jennifer's story illustrates, adaptability isn't a matter of sucking it up while an office bully walks all over you. It's about being prepared to change conflict management strategies when necessary to preserve your own future prospects. Strategic appeasement, the form of adaptability Jennifer employed, is, at best, a temporary solution; if overused it will likely bring negative consequences for you and the workplace as a whole. Fortunately our research has revealed a menu of practical tactics used by adaptive workers for effectively navigating different conflict situations on the job.

No one strategy fits all conflicts, though, and it is critical to KNOW THY SITUATION. There are three basic questions that you can always ask yourself to help size up different types of workplace tension: 1) Is it in my best interest to engage in this situation? 2) Are my colleagues working with me or against me (or both) here? and 3) Do they have power or authority over me? Depending on the answers to these questions, adaptive workers will apply very different types of problem-solving strategies. For example:

• Strategic appeasement in situations where their boss is an unreasonable jerk but they need to buy some time;
• Seeking support and clarification in conflict when facing problems with a generally cooperative boss on whom they are highly dependent;
• Disengaging from a conflict you don't need to be a part of and finding alternative ways to meet your goals;
• Taking the high road in situations when a generally cooperative peer or employee has caused a problem;
• Coming on strong, direct, and even demanding in situations requiring firm, command-and-control leadership;
• Rebelling by naming and shaming those in authority when you are asked to do things that are clearly unethical, immoral or illegal.

In the short-term, the ability to strategically adapt your response to conflict helps manage the immediate demands of a tense situation, reducing the chances of escalation and fostering a more stable environment for constructive interaction. Ultimately, cooperative approaches are more likely to lead to positive outcomes for all parties. Adaptive individuals consider the appropriateness of their behavior in any given situation and work to reconcile the conflict in a way that benefits all parties involved.

What does this look like?

It's the seasoned nurse that adapts to his recently hired coworker, who came in with a superior, know-it-all attitude, by initially dominating in their disagreements over hospital procedure so the job gets done well and on time. But because he sees promise behind the new upstarts argumentativeness, he works to establish a basis to work more collaboratively with her as she gets socialized to the job.

It's the shop steward of a new manufacturing company who's hired a team with great potential, but has to do much of the work herself as she trains her employees. She sets her own goals, goes after them, and uses her first few hires as assistants, ignoring most of their gripes for now, knowing that this is the only way to get things moving in the beginning. But she relaxes in her dominant leadership style as her employees become more experienced, and succeeds in building a strong team that knows how to work through their differences.

It's the assistant principal who refuses to argue or negotiate with a young teacher who posts inappropriate material on Facebook after friending a student's parents. He uses his authority to decree a temporary policy so as to prevent similar problems, but quickly involves the faculty in designing a longer-term set of rules for social media. His goal is a policy arrived at through reasoned negotiation by the group.

Hard times are here for many hard working Americans. Today we must adapt to the industrious ethic and shrewd decision-making it takes to get by. But adaptivity takes knowledge, skill and practice. Most of us get stuck in our chronic ways of responding to challenges at work and therefore miss opportunities to get things done and build stronger relations. While we must keep the pressure on our leaders in business and government to even the playing field and rebuild our economy, there is also much we can do to take control of our lives and improve our lot.

Peter T. Coleman, PhD, is Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University, Director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, and co-author with Robert Ferguson of Making Conflict Work: Harnessing the Power of Disagreement (September 2014, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). http://www.makingconflictwork.com/

Robert Ferguson, PhD, is a psychologist, management consultant, executive coach and author.