From Conflict to Compassion in the Workplace

By focusing on our own behaviors, we can create more peaceful workplaces

Posted Mar 18, 2013

Whenever we have problems at work, we are more likely to point to someone else as the source of the problems than consider our own contribution.  Yet as much as that other person might be failing in their job, mistreating us or just plain behaving badly, the only real behavior we can change is our own.  Changing our own behavior is challenging, however; we do not see ourselves as others see us, and we have good reason to be protective of our self-image because it does influence the perceptions of others, and makes getting along with ourselves much easier.  It can be even more challenging to change our behaviors when the behavior of someone else is blatantly appalling.  Yet that is precisely when we most need to look within, and consider our capacity for compassion.

Workplace conflict brings out the worst in people, and the worse people behave, the more convinced they will be that their behavior is both justified and necessary. What we rarely see in moments of conflict are admissions of error, particularly among those in power, as well as genuine efforts to listen and constructively respond to the ideas and perceptions of others.  Attributing and avoiding blame become the paramount objectives among diverse people with varying levels of power and influence, leading to corrosive workplace environments where few outcomes are constructive, and even fewer are fair to all parties.

Where workers compete for limited resources, strategic power and professional identities, it is all too easy to lose sight of human compassion when conflict does erupt.  What take the place of compassion are combative and self-serving behaviors that further erode our humanity.  Instead of resolving workplace conflicts, they escalate them.  Moreover, in many of our efforts to eliminate bad behaviors in the workplace, such as efforts to end bullying, sexual harassment, and discrimination, we paradoxically risk increasing other kinds of bad behaviors. 

Abuse, aggression and discrimination are indeed unacceptable behaviors in any social setting, and dismissing or trivializing them is misguided and does nothing to better the workplace.  But the greater risk is in how we respond to these social problems.  As humans we all too often become so concerned with upholding our virtues that once someone we work with is accused of bullying, sexual harassment or prejudice, we tend to no longer see the worker as a human, but as a symbol of what we abhor.  As such, it becomes nearly impossible for an accused worker to be fairly evaluated or become freed of the stigma should the charges be found unsupported.  Perhaps even more sadly, the more such behaviors are demonized, the more unlikely it is that those who do engage in them will ever stop them.  They will instead oppose the policies and people condemning them, rather than reflect on the actual behaviors they engaged in.

Even in cases involving poor managers, it is all too easy to view them as unsympathetic symbols of corporate power, rather than humans struggling to survive, and build and sustain relationships.  Yet that is what each worker is, and our inability to see all workers in this light in times of conflict makes it all the more easy to injure them with aggressive efforts to expel them from the workplace.

One look at the comments that are generated on essays about workplace problems, and one readily sees how rabidly aggressive many commenters can become in demonizing bad bosses, workers accused of any impropriety, or those who express different opinions.  Few express a genuine desire to understand those who differ, to resolve conflicts without shedding figurative blood, or to feel compassion for those they cannot readily identify with.  In short, discussions of workplace conflicts are more likely to provoke rage than reason, and calls for compassion are readily associated with weakness or naiveté, rather than strength and wisdom.

The workplace is a network of strategic and treasured relationships, relationships that become critical to our social, psychological and professional survival.  During times of conflict, these relationships can be destroyed just as new ones can be forged.  Yet the more we draw on a rhetoric of intolerance, labeling, and exclusion to rid the workplace of the kinds of people we do not like, the less humane we make the workplace and the more our professional relationships become void of compassion and sincerity. 

If there is one thing we can do to make our workplaces more rewarding and enriching, it is not by creating ever more categories of the kinds of people we do not want.  It is by nurturing compassion within ourselves, one small act at a time.  By refraining from gossip, and demonstrating greater kindness to workers who are targeted for punishment or elimination, we plant seeds of compassion in our workplaces.  By cooperating with our colleagues, even when we disagree or dislike them, rather than avoiding or arguing with them, we plant seeds of compassion in our workplaces.  And by understanding that workers under fire may not always behave ideally, but may well be kind and decent people, if not excellent workers, we plant seeds of compassion in our workplaces. 

These are the seeds from which the fertile grounds of human relationships might thrive.  The first step toward resolving workplace conflicts begins not with demonization, name-calling and zero-tolerance, but with humanization, respect and greater tolerance.  It may only be a first step, but it would be a giant leap in the discussions of how to create more workable work environments.  The more we foster compassion in ourselves through small actions, the more we build the capacity to address greater workplace conflicts more constructively and effectively.