Resolving Conflict at Work

You either love it or hate it but The Office is one of the most successful TV Comedy series of the 21st Century. Called a ‘mockumentary’, its filmed as a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary and set in the offices of Wernham Hogg, a paper merchant in Slough, ironically not far from here. The faster paced US spin-off follows the mundane daily interactions of a group of idiosyncratic office employees at another paper company this time in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Written by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, and starring Gervais, The Office catapulted him to stardom in 2001, winning two Golden Globes, one for his acting and one for the show itself.[1] Jago Wynne in Working without Wilting, writes,

“The humour is very simple. It comes from observations about mundane office life, humour basically at the expense of all the different types of people working in the office. In fact, just as the TV series Friends was called Friends because it is about the relationships between different friends, so The Office could just as easily have been called Colleagues, because its about all the relationships between different colleagues.[2]

You’ve got Tim, the sales rep, who is the ‘dissatisfied with life’ colleague. He’s a nice guy, and his witticisms and friendliness make him one of the most likeable characters of the show, but at thirty, he still lives with his parents and works in a job he believes to be completely pointless. You’ve got the ‘frustrating to work with’ colleague, Gareth, who gets on everyone’s nerves. Gareth is a humourless jobsworth with few attractive personality traits. He is obsessed with military violence and his service in the Territorial Army and perpetually annoys Tim with ridiculous, pretentious comments. He prides himself in being ‘Team Leader’ not realising his title is almost meaningless, but still imposes the little authority he has on his co-workers. Then you have the ‘attractive’ colleague, Dawn the receptionist. Like Tim who fancies her, she is aware of the sad state of her unfulfilling life. She has been in a long, rocky engagement with her fiancé Lee and gave up illustrating children’s books to pursue her current fruitless career. And then finally you have the ‘nightmare’ colleague, the boss David Brent. He considers himself to be a successful maverick in the business world and a ‘Renaissance man’, talented in philosophy, music and comedy. Although he believes himself to be friendly, hilarious, and well-liked, he is in reality petty, pompous and snide. His immature behaviour comes across as he bumbles around the office-always hovering around the camera-telling unfunny jokes, performing hackneyed impressions and generally getting himself into trouble by talking before thinking. Although Brent considers himself to be a modern, ‘politically correct’ man he often displays patronising (and at times offensive) attitudes towards women, ethnic minorities, gay people and disabled people.[3]

The characters are clearly stereotypes but if you have ever watched the programme I am sure you will have seen similarities with colleagues in real life. In fiction, it has all the ingredients necessary for an entertaining comedy series. In real life, it has all the ingredients for a perfect storm in the office, in the department, in your school or university.

This morning we are considering ‘Resolving Conflict at Work’. Given that we spend more of our waking life in the workplace than the home or leisure activities, it is not surprising that our workplace is going to be the place where conflict is most likely to occur. Before we look at resolving conflict, let us consider some of the causes of conflict at work. In the Epistle of James the question is raised and answered.

“What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?  You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God.  When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” (James 4:1-4)

If we use the main characters from The Office as our model, we can see how our carnal desires, be they for money, sex or power, contribute to conflict in the workplace:

1. There is the Frustrating Colleague (like Gareth)

Colleagues can be frustrating because we may have conflicting desires, expectations or aspirations in fulfilling our work roles. Maybe they are always late or point out when you are; maybe they are forgetful or worse, never forget a thing; maybe they are disorganised or hyper organised. Whatever it is, the frustration we feel says as much about us as about them. We may not express our frustrations through physical violence but judging by the number of signs you see in hospitals, railway stations and other public locations, warning of the consequences of verbal abuse, it is I assume more common that we would wish. You don’t have to be in the workplace for long before you are able to meet some frustrating colleagues, and when you do, the temptation is to get angry with them, or bitter and resentful in your heart. The frustrating colleague.

2. There is the Attractive Colleague (like Dawn)

Frustrating colleagues are one thing, but an equally explosive proposition is how we relate to colleagues we find really attractive or who appear to feel that way about us. Welcome or unwelcome advances can be at best, a distraction at work, and at worst, lead to sexual harassment and abuse.

3. There is the Nightmare Colleague (like David)

Jago writes,

“If you’ve ever secretly harboured thoughts that a colleague – or even your boss – behaves like a psychopath, you may be closer to the truth than you dared imagine.’ That was the first line in a recent article in the Guardian entitled ‘Beware – danger at work’. The article went on to quote Professor Hare of the University of British Columbia in Canada.

Corporate psychopaths tend to be manipulative, arrogant, callous, impatient, impulsive, unreliable and prone to fly into rages. The break promises and take credit for the work of others and blame everyone else when things go wrong. Psychopaths are social predators and like all predators they look for feeding grounds. Where ever you get power, prestige and money you will find them.[4]

It doesn’t take long at work before one of these delightful individuals turns up. It could be someone at the same level as you, or, as in the case of The Office, it could be your boss.”

Three different types of colleague (and I am sure there are many more). Some frustrate you, some attract you and some intimidate you. A hurricane occurs when three forces come together, heat, moisture and the centrifugal force of the world’s rotation. It is no different in the office. Put them together and you have all the ingredients for a perfect storm in the office.

The question is, how should we relate to the frustrating colleague, the attractive colleague or the nightmare colleague? When God views your office, what does he see? In Ephesians 4, we see the futility of life without Jesus Christ.

“They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.  Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.” (Ephesians 4:18-19)

But, verse 20,

“That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus.  You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires;  to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:20-24)

The imagery is of clothing – the taking off dirty clothes and putting on clean clothes – and describes the new standards expected of Christians.[5] From verses 25-30, we are given five instructions that will help us live for Christ and be a positive witness, that will help us resist temptation and resolve conflict, whether in the home, school or workplace.[6]

John Stott writes,

“It is marvellous to see how easily Paul can descend from lofty theological talk about our two humanities, about the Christ we have learned and the new creation we have experienced, to the nitty-gritty of Christian behaviour-telling the truth and controlling our anger, honesty at work and kindness of speech, forgiveness, love and sexual self-control. All very practical. And before we come to his … examples, we need to notice three features common to them all.

First, they all concern our relationships. Holiness is not a mystical condition experienced in relation to God but in isolation from human beings. You cannot be good in a vacuum, but only in the real world of people…

Secondly, in each example a negative prohibition is balanced by a corresponding positive command. It is not enough to put off the old rags; we have to put on new garments…

Thirdly, in each case a reason for the command is either given or implied, indeed a theological reason. For in the teaching of Jesus and his apostles doctrine and ethics, belief and behaviour are always dovetailed into one another.”

Lets see how these five instructions will help us resolve conflict and avoid contributing to a perfect storm in the office.

1. Don’t lie, but rather tell the truth

“Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor.” (Ephesians 4:25)

The Greek word is not falsehood in the abstract but ‘the lie’ (to pseudos). True, its difficult to avoid lying without telling the truth, but its all too easy to be economical with the truth and intentionally deceive with half truths isn’t it? In the workplace, Christians should be known as honest, reliable people whose word can be trusted. Falsehood and deception undermines relationships, while truth and honesty strengthens it.

2. Don’t lose your temper, but ensure anger is righteous

“In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry,  and do not give the devil a foothold.” (Ephesians 4:26-27)

The verse recognizes that there is such a thing as Christian anger, although I suspect too infrequently do we either feel or express it. Stott says

“Indeed, when we fail to do so, we deny God, damage ourselves and encourage the spread of evil… I go further and say that there is a great need in the contemporary world for more Christian anger. We human beings compromise with sin in a way in which God never does. In the face of blatant evil we should be indignant not tolerant, angry not apathetic. If God hates sin, his people should hate it too. If evil arouses his anger, it should arouse ours also. At the same time, we need to remember our fallenness, and our constant proneness to intemperance and vanity. Consequently, we always have to be on our guard and act as censors of our own anger. If we are wise, we shall be ‘slow to anger.'”

Paul immediately qualifies his permissive be angry by three negatives. First, do not sin. We have to make sure that our anger is free from injured pride, spite, malice, animosity and the spirit of revenge. Secondly, do not let the sun go down on your anger. His purpose is to warn us against nursing anger. It is seldom safe to allow the embers to smoulder. Paul’s third qualification is give no opportunity to the devil (verse 27), for he … loves to lurk round angry people, hoping to be able to exploit the situation to his own advantage by provoking them into hatred or violence or a breach of fellowship.
So, don’t lie, but rather tell the truth. Second, don’t lose your temper, but ensure your anger is righteous.

3.    Don’t steal, but rather work and give
“Those who have been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.” (Ephesians 4:28)

‘Do not steal’ was the eighth commandment of Moses’ law. Then as now, it has wide application, not only to stealing other people’s money or possessions, but to employers who oppress their staff, and employees who give poor service, pilfer or work short time. In echoing the commandment (let the thief no longer steal), the apostle also draws out its positive implications. It is not enough to stop stealing. We must start working, doing honest work with our hands, earning our own living. Then we will be able not only to support ourselves and family, but also to give to those in need. Instead of sponging on the company, as thieves do, we must bring value to it. And as Stott observes, “none but Christ can transform a burglar into a benefactor!” Lets recap. To resolve conflict, don’t lie, but rather tell the truth. Don’t lose your temper, but ensure your anger is righteous. Don’t steal, but rather work and give.

4. Don’t use your mouth for evil, but rather for good
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” (Ephesians 4:29-30)

Speech is a wonderful gift of God. It is one of our human capacities which reflect our likeness to God. For our God speaks, and like him we also speak. Speech distinguishes us from the animal creation. Cows can moo, dogs bark, donkeys bray, pigs grunt, lambs bleat, lions roar, monkeys squeal and birds sing, but only human beings can speak. So let no evil talk come out of your mouths, Paul says. ‘Evil’ here is sapros, a word used of rotten trees and rotten fruit.3 When applied to rotten talk, whether this is dishonest, unkind or vulgar, we may be sure that in some way it hurts the hearers. Instead, we are to use our unique gift of speech constructively, for edifying, that is to build people up and not damage or destroy them, as fits the occasion. Then our words will impart grace to those who hear…The Holy Spirit is a sensitive Spirit. He hates sin, discord and falsehood, and shrinks away from them. Therefore, if we wish to avoid hurting him, we shall shrink from them too. Every Spirit-filled believer desires to bring him pleasure, not pain. Four injunctions so far: Don’t lie, but rather tell the truth.

Don’t lose your temper, but ensure your anger is righteous. Don’t steal, but rather work and give. Don’t use your mouth for evil, but rather for good. Finally,

5. Don’t be unkind or bitter, but rather kind and loving

“Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:31-32)

Stott observes,

“Here is a whole series of six unpleasant attitudes and actions which are to be put away from us entirely. Bitterness (pikria) is a sour spirit and sour speech. Rage (thymos) and anger (orgē) are obviously similar, the former denoting a passionate rage and the latter a more settled and sullen hostility. Brawling (kraugē) describes people who get excited, raise their voices in a quarrel, and start shouting, even screaming, at each other, while slander (blasphēmia) is speaking evil of others, especially behind their backs, and so defaming and even destroying their reputation. The sixth word is malice (kakia), or ill will, wishing and probably plotting evil against people.”

If we are to help resolve conflict then we must repudiate these and instead demonstrate the kind of qualities which characterize the behaviour of God and of Jesus Christ.
We are to be kind to one another. The word is chrēstos, which is close to the name of Christ (Christos), so Christians from the beginning saw its peculiar appropriateness. Compassionate, while forgiving one another (charizomenoi) literally means ‘acting in grace’ towards one another, as God in Christ has acted in grace towards us.

Are you beginning to see how these five practical injunctions will help you live for Christ at work, will help diffuse tension, will help bring reconciliation where there is conflict?

Now don’t misunderstand me, this is not a set of moral do’s and don’ts. This is not moralism we are offered but a model. We learn best from role models and in Jesus Christ we have the very best.

“Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:1-2)

Let me conclude with this summary from John Stott,

“Therefore, because of God’s gracious attitude and generous actions towards us, we are to be imitators (mimētai) of God, as beloved children. Just as children copy their parents, so we are to copy our Father God, as Jesus himself told us to. We are to follow Christ, to walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us. The same verb for self-giving (paradidōmi) is used of the heathen in 4:19. They give themselves up to sensuality; we like Christ are to give ourselves up to love. Such self-giving for others is pleasing to God. As with Christ so with us, self-sacrificial love is a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. It is thus a striking truth that sacrificial love for others becomes a sacrifice acceptable to God.”

This is how we learn to resolve conflict not just at work, but in school, at university and above all, in our homes. Lets pray.

For the full text see here and audio here