Fighting Businesswomen

I used to be great at holding grudges. My training came from a master: my beloved, strong-willed grandmother, whose grievances were as dramatic as the televised wrestling matches we watched together. But just as I've learned the hard way that eating ice cream for breakfast isn't a great way to start the day, I've learned that nursing a grudge might feel good in the moment but hurts me in the long run.

Lately, in my capacity as a management consultant, I've noticed a lot of grudges in the workplace. I think one reason there's so much ill will is that we're not encouraged to air our feelings at work. Although, for the most part, we're right to keep our hurts to ourselves in professional settings where we're vulnerable, the result is that many conflicts aren't resolved. What's more, work is an environment where we are required to be with people who aren't necessarily like us and don't always share our point of view, which is both wonderful and difficult. Inequities in power and money can make disputes more acrimonious.

While some grudges are the result of accumulated irritations, even a single incident can leave scars that never heal. Last week I heard a story of a television producer who mishandled a situation with a production assistant. The producer made a mistake, and instead of taking the blame when an even bigger producer nailed her for it, she turned to the innocent assistant and said, "Helen, how could this happen?" Five years later, the PA still holds such a serious grudge that her verbal response to hearing the producer's name is like hitting the play button on a long-running insult tape.

The problem with grudges at work is that they're a lose-lose proposition. They take your energy away from getting the job done and can hurt you not only emotionally but financially, by damaging your reputation.

Let's look at the grudge match between two women I'll call Madeline and Jennifer. They were friends, and when Jennifer's company went on a hiring binge, Jennifer got Madeline an interview for a temporary clerical job. Madeline was hired and learned quickly. Soon Bill, the big boss, noticed her work. Then when he was looking for an executive assistant, he reached down in the organization, bypassing Jennifer, and offered the position to Madeline. Jennifer felt her friend had intentionally hurt her. Hey, did I say grudges have to be rational?

Now Madeline fears Jennifer is plotting against her. She's afraid that if she leaves her desk and Jennifer answers her boss's phone even once, she may try to insinuate her way into the job. Madeline has actually cut back on coffee and water in order to avoid having to go to the bathroom!

After hearing Madeline's story, I began asking other women if they carried grudges at work. The answer was a resounding "Yes!" People relished the chance to air their gripes. Our friends and loved ones will only listen to this stuff for so long before they get tired of it. We end up going over and over old grievances in the privacy of our own minds.

In doing so we compromise our health. Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, PhD, a professor of psychology at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, found in a study that holding grudges affects us physically. People who were asked to imagine how they would like to get back at someone showed a higher heart rate and blood pressure—and increased sweating and muscle tension—than when they thought about forgiving.

It's wise to let little slights pass—not because you aren't justified in being peeved but because, like cigarettes, these gripes should come with a warning: Dangerous to your health. If, on the other hand, you have a serious grievance, you may need to go to human resources or even find a lawyer. The point is to address the problem rather than to stew.

You can also try nipping a grudge in the bud by speaking up in an unemotional way. For example, if a co-worker says something snotty to you in a meeting, you can take her aside later and say, "Terry, I want to clear the air with you about something. I think your comments damaged our ability to keep this project moving."

For more entrenched grudges, I suggest a strange but useful tip I picked up from Frederic Luskin, PhD, director of the Stanford (University) Forgiveness Project, a research and training program. Force yourself to spend half an hour dwelling on what's bugging you—say, from 7:30 to 8 each night. I tried it, and after a few nights I found myself saying, "I'm not going to waste any more time on this!"

Really bad grudges, the Madeline-and-Jennifer-level ones, are not easily resolved. But you can decide that at the very least, you won't make the problem worse, and you can vow not to discuss it with colleagues. Some relationships can't be fixed and the best you can do is wait for the pain to subside. You can also try to understand your part in the conflict, so you can decrease the chances of ever carrying another painful grudge.

Be Happy and Confident at Work