Are you feeling the crunch of conflict at work? For sinful people living in a fallen world, some conflict is simply an inevitable reality. But despite the many dramatic movies that suggest otherwise, most workplace conflict is pretty mundane. Simple miscommunications, competing interests, personal entanglements, and other small matters lead to hurt feelings, tension, and discord.
Whether you work for a corporation or a church, and no matter how good you are or try to be, you will find yourself entangled in workplace conflict at some point in your career . . . and that's not necessarily a bad thing. There is such a thing as healthy conflict. In fact, a lot of very good organizational change can come about through conflict, even the messy kind.
Losing my cool
I tend to be pretty calm and easy-going with people, so I remember vividly each of the few times that I really lost my cool at work. One time in particular stands out in my mind. I was heading up the operations side of the business and my "adversary" was in charge of sales. Basically, he was in charge of bringing in new clients while I was in charge of seeing to it that their needs were met. We both worked for the same company, but we had different goals and different gifts. To make matters worse, we were not communicating well with each other. I felt like he was over-promising to new clients in order to secure their business, but without consulting with me about what we could actually deliver. It was incredibly frustrating to feel like my team had been put in a position to fail.
I let my frustration build and build, until one day I just lost it. I was seething when I confronted him. I raised my voice in a way I'm not proud of. I nearly cried. It did not feel good. I certainly don't recommend that approach, but in some ways it actually did help to break the ice and expose a real problem. From there, we were able to work toward a solution. We instituted a new "pricing committee" that could oversee the details of the deals being offered by the sales team. The process enabled us to work from our strengths, with the pricing committee serving as a middle ground.
I've since moved on from that job, but as far as I know, the pricing committee process is still in place, and the organization as a whole is better for it. We wouldn't have improved our business without working through that conflict.
Principles for dealing with workplace conflict
Just like the people involved, each conflict is unique and there's no perfect answer for how to address each one. There are, however, some practical and biblical principles that you can apply no matter what the conflict (or your role in it) is.
1. Get your heart right.
Before you take action, you need to take the situation to God. Conflict and disagreement can cause your heart to harden toward others, so pray for perspective, humility, and peace. Pray that God would reveal to you any sin on your part. Pray directly for each of the people involved, even if you are annoyed or angered by them. Praying for your "enemy" in this instance will help to realign your heart in obedience to God. I find that this kind of personal prayer also helps me to move past any desire I might have to punish wrongdoers or to "win" in the situation.
2. Separate the problem from the person.
You can solve problems, but you can't solve people. Sometimes what seems like conflict at work is really just a clash of personalities and perspectives. Not everything that annoys or angers you deserves a confrontation. Sometimes you need to just let things go, forgive, and move on. It's worth asking yourself, Is this a personality clash, or is there really a problem to solve here? You don't have to be best friends with everyone at work, but you should strive to treat even the most trying coworker with kindness and respect.
3. If possible, start small.
Most of the time, the best case scenario is that the people directly involved with the conflict privately solve it themselves. This is in keeping with biblical guidelines laid out in Matthew 18 for resolving conflict among believers, and it also makes good, practical sense. When a conflict goes public—even in a small way, like involving a supervisor or human resources representative—issues of pride and concerns about image and saving face can creep in and muddy the waters. Furthermore, involving other people tends to formalize the conflict and sometimes makes it a much bigger issue than it needs to be.
In a private setting there tends to be less pride on the line. In my experience, working through conflict can be a sort of bonding experience. Even if you don't end up liking those in conflict with you, you may come to understand them better and respect them more than you did before, and that makes it easier to move past conflict and establish a healthier working relationship. Not every conflict can or will be solved this way, but it's best to try to start small and expand the involvement to an appropriate third party only if necessary.
4. Take appropriate responsibility.
If you are one of the people directly involved in a conflict, then you are almost certainly responsible for at least some of the issue. You need to acknowledge your part in the problem and ask forgiveness. You may be surprised at just how far that goes toward resolving the issue.
If you're not directly involved in a workplace conflict, then you need to be cautious about being drawn in. Sometimes managers get in trouble here when they step in too early to try to resolve a conflict among their team members. Doing so conveys the message that you don't see your people as capable of handling their own problems and establishes an expectation that you will arbitrate even the smallest of disputes. Instead, encourage your colleagues to attempt to solve problems among themselves. There are problems that do require outside intervention, but many, if not most, can and should be solved without it.
5. Stake out common ground.
Focusing on a common goal can keep conflict headed in a productive and healthy direction. When I found myself clashing with the head of the sales force, we were able to move in a positive direction because we both understood that the overall success of our company depended on the ability of our departments to complement and support each other. Even though our immediate goals were different, we also had some common goals to work toward and we both wanted to find a way to get there.
As you encounter and do your best to respond to office conflict, keep in mind the ultimate purpose of your work: "Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ (Colossians 3:23-24, esv). You are an ambassador for Christ at work, and one of the most powerful ways you can share Christ with your coworkers will be through what you do in difficult situations. While others in the office may avoid, ignore, or even stoke conflict around them, you can be a force for peace, cohesion, and redemption.