When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom …
JOHN LENNON & PAUL MCCARTNEY (1970): LET IT BE
Let It Be was The Beatles’ twelfth and final studio album.The title song of reconciliation was Paul’s tribute to his dear departed mother, Mary.Two years earlier, The Beatles gave up touring after serious arguments and strained relations within the group.The band’s cohesiveness was lost without playing live or recording together.They needed to Get Back to their roots as a true ensemble.
But rehearsals and recording sessions did not run smoothly.The film version captured interpersonal conflicts during the band’s break-up.Amidst the turmoil was the iconic moment when The Beatles performed together for the last time on the rooftop of Apple Records in Central London.Huge crowds gathered below in homage to the music.The performance was cut short by police after complaints about the noise.Even legends have their critics.
A ministry of reconciliation
No one can afford the price of conflict. It is estimated that 64 nations are currently involved in armed conflicts. When and how will they end? We want peace but not at the expense of justice. We do not want to return to the Pax Romana (Roman Peace) of the First Century A.D., which existed only because Rome’s oppression squashed all dissent.
Preaching on a Sunday morning in 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. fought the temptation to retaliate against a society steeped in racism. He asked the Dexter Avenue Baptist congregation in Montgomery, Alabama: “How do you go about loving your enemies? Begin with yourself …. When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it.”
Racial and political tensions are nothing new. The purpose of government is never to feed divisiveness. What do we profit to attack those unlike us, those who hold different opinions, or even those who seek to harm us? Many believe that our ministry should imitate the selfless servant-heart of reconciliation.
Middle manager reflections
Former Manitoba colleague Marianne Farag wrote recently: “Conflict can for many of us develop into an addiction as we become more and more hooked on the struggle to gain power, to be right, to win, to assert ourselves and our individuality. When we don’t win … our ego feels defeated or diminished.”
The signs of dysfunctional workplaces are indelible, constant complaining, passive-aggressive behaviours, sabotage, and lack of enthusiasm, reliability, commitment, or loyalty. Self-awareness of the impact on harmonious relations is generally absent from the workplace ethic. Figuring out the new normal of peaceful co-existence is the prime directive of positive, inclusive organizations.
York University political ethics professor Ian Greene shared his personal story:
“I was once a middle manager in the Alberta Public Service. Trying to do the right thing, both for my team and my bosses, was perhaps the most stressful experience of my life. I went to a workshop on how middle managers can survive. I had to pay for it myself and take a day off work; my boss refused any assistance. The workshop leader, a University of Calgary social work professor, asked the 30 of us to describe our most troublesome experience in middle management and to do role plays. We played the part of the annoying person we had described, and he played us. He taught us that what we had done in the past didn’t work; we needed to try something different. It was transformative. We could see the issue from our enemy’s perspective. We could forgive them and try to work with them as human beings. That workshop gave me the emotional stability to survive my last month’s work before I started my new job at York.”
What should middle managers do when faced with conflict in the workplace? Self-awareness is a good place to start. Managers should ask themselves questions that challenge their patterns and preparedness and that help chart an original conflict management strategy for the situation.
1. Do I understand without prejudice or criticism what motivates difficult people to react the way they do?
2. Do I empathize with difficult people, so that I can imagine situations from their perspective?
3. Do I reflect on my own reactions to difficult people, so that I can learn something about myself as a result?
4. Do I try to be assertive and not passive or aggressive?
5. Do I listen critically for underlying problems and issues when difficult people are talking to me?
6. Do I go with the flow rather than adopting ‘fight or flight’ defensive reactions to difficult people?
7. Do I try not to take someone’s negative behaviour personally, even though this is difficult?
8. Do I avoid responding to difficult people with sarcasm because I realize it is a defensive form of aggression?
9. Do I focus on the issue at hand with a proactive solution, even if I am blamed by someone who is angry?
10. Do I observe non-verbal signals in difficult people’s eyes, hands, posture, and facial expressions?
JOHN WILKINS IS ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR: PUBLIC MANAGEMENT WITH THE SCHULICH SCHOOL OF BUSINESS, YORK UNIVERSITY (JWILKINS@SCHULICH.YORKU.CA). HE WAS A CAREER PUBLIC SERVICE MANAGER IN CANADA AND A COMMONWEALTH DIPLOMAT.