The scenario that got both Sally and Jim both terminated from their company could have run like this:
Jim: All I said was that I needed the documents, completed and signed, by tomorrow night.
Sally: Don't tell me that's all you said. You demanded it!
Jim: I asked nicely.
Sally: Yes, but when my boss was here you kissed up to him really well and then asked me nicely. But your e-mail screamed at me.
Jim: Well, you made me do it because you didn't write back to me.
Sally: I'm your boss and don't have to get back to you. I tell you what to do.
And so it went, until the screaming attracted the attention of the entire office. Most office conflict doesn't spiral out of control. But everyone has a conflict in the office from time to time. Even if you don't have frequent conflict with others, you will be around people who do disagree with one another.
In office conflicts, there are "only" three major causes of conflict. If your office has any of the following, then you will have conflict:
Humor aside, everybody is going to have conflict. The book of James gives another example of the source of conflict:
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. —James 4:1–2 (NIV)
Conflict begins when someone shares their salary with a co-worker, who then becomes envious of the other. Or, one person gets a promotion, while the one who doesn't takes out their angst on the new boss. It also can start when a subordinate continually makes insulting jokes and jabs, undermining morale.
What should we do when conflict happens? Here are some typical steps to consider when conflict happens in your office:
1. Acknowledge the conflict: By saying, "Yes, this is a conflict," you have identified it and can now contain it. Ken Sande from Peacemaker Ministries suggests the "Three-Day Rule." Many conflicts are minor and can be overlooked. But, if after three days you are still feeling angry, hurt, or insulted, then you need to resolve the conflict.
2. Get the log out of your own eye: Conflict is often seen in the Bible, so we shouldn't be surprised to get great advice there as well. Jesus asked:
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye. —Matthew 7:3–5 (NIV)
Practically, this means reflecting on what you have brought to the problem. We all want to think that the other person is 100 percent to blame. The truth is, we often are 25 percent, 50 percent or 75 percent of the reason for a problem. How can you unearth what your part of the problem is? Own your own stuff!
3. Allow for two confidants: Everybody needs a confidant, a person that they can share their story with and get honest and supportive feedback (I recommend that men talk with men and women talk with women). Many times people do well with one office confidant and one non-office confidant. In a small office, it's hard to have a confidant. But in offices with more than ten staff members, I recommend allowing employees to have a confidant in the office. There should be limits to the number of confidants in the office, though. Many people like to have two, three, or more confidants in the office, which creates a gossip chain.
Here are some thoughts for you and your confidant:
• Ask your confidant to keep your story confidential;
• Ask your confidant to let you tell your side of the problem;
• Specifically ask your confidant: "What could I have done better?" and "Are there amends that I need to make?" and "How do you think I can resolve the issue?"
4. Go and talk to the other person: For most office conflicts, this is the best approach. Don't go alone if the conflict involves physical or sexual abuse.
If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. —Matthew 18:15 (NIV)
Here are some guidelines for conversations like this:
• Don't have a hallway conversation;
• Make an appointment. "Jim, you and I had a conflict yesterday, and I would like to spend some time talking with you about it. When would be a good time for you?"
• Talk face-to-face. Do not talk via email or phone. Use the phone, if geography dictates, but don't use email—it almost never works. Email is like pouring gasoline on the fire!
• Keep the main issues on the table. Perhaps write down your thoughts.
5. Involve your supervisor: If the one-on-one talk doesn't work, then involve your supervisor. If the conflict is with your supervisor, then get the next person in the hierarchy. You want to follow the intent of Jesus' words:
But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' —Matthew 18:16 (NIV)
In the office, I rarely talk about lines of authority (meaning reporting relationships between bosses, managers, and supervisors, and employees, direct reports, and subordinates). When someone is hired or gets an annual review, we talk about lines of authority. We also talk about lines of authority when there is conflict in the office.
With an office conflict, it is vital to follow these lines. It ensures each party in the conflict gets treated fairly. It's also the legal way to handle conflict—only involve the necessary people.
Example: If Jim reports to Sally, then the person to help resolve the conflict is Sally's supervisor. If Jim and Sally report to different people, they you may want to bring the supervisors of both Jim and Sally.
Example of who not to bring in: Don't bring in the "big boss" to resolve the conflict, whoever he or she may be. Follow the authority lines of the organization—God wants us to honor those who we directly work for. When we "jump" around our supervisors, we don't treat them well and so we dishonor God. However, you may need to inform the "big boss" of the conflict.
Keep the conflict resolution confined until you need to bring in others. Don't bring in co-workers of Jim and Sally. Co-workers mean well, but generally don't have the authority or responsibility to solve work problems (notice I said "generally").
Most people think of excuses about why their conflict cannot be resolved. Unfortunately, most of the excuses are applied to the other person. Here are some common ones:
• "The other person won't change, so I'm not going to try."
• "The other person won't listen to me—they have already hurt me enough so more talking will only increase my pain."
• "The conflict isn't that big of a deal—I'm pretty much done with my crying."
• "You're too busy to help me, so let's not bother with it."
In an article, it is so easy to see these as white lies and excuses. But in the heat of conflict, these are used to avoid dealing with the other party.
We Aren't Alone
There is so much more to cover. The people at Peacemaker Ministries have great material on resolving conflict in a biblical manner (including Ken Sande's The Peacemaker).
These are some starting points on how to resolve conflict in the office. Remember, we don't journey through conflict alone. God gives us wisdom on how to resolve any conflict:
If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. —Galatians 6:1–2 (ESV)
And God tells us what happens when we help bring peace:
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. —James 3:17–18 (ESV)
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