Building a Better Workplace Culture by Managing Conflict

Lessons from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Black History Month 2019 creates an opportunity to reflect on the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the year he would have celebrated his 90th birthday.

At the core of King’s approach to address racial inequality, poverty and war was the concept of the Beloved Community, a global vision of brotherly (agape) love in which all people share in the wealth of the earth. Dr. King understood agape love plays a fundamental role in building healthy communities that benefit all people and should operate as a centerpiece of our social interactions.

Today’s increasingly diverse workplace is a positive step towards King’s dream of a world free of discrimination. But many companies still struggle to create a healthy culture where conflict born from differences of opinion, heritage and gender do not prevail over the sense of community and collaboration.

This fundamental business challenge merits further examination and begs the question of how would Dr. King’s nonviolence philosophy apply in modern-day companies? How can companies manage conflict and flourish by fostering a culture that emulates the broader Beloved Community championed by Dr. King?

Dr. King described a series of six actions (stages) that can be applied to issues of conflict.

Information Gathering: To understand and articulate an issue or problem facing a person or group in the workplace, do your research. So many disagreements are born from a basic misunderstanding of the facts. Companies should encourage employees, leaders and teams to be curious and take the time to be clear on both sides of an issue.
EDUCATION: Make an effort to inform others, including your “opponent,” about your issue. Speak in terms of the basis of your position first and foremost. Doing so creates clarity about why you should be supported without centering the conflict around why another party or colleague is in the wrong.

Personal Commitment: Accept that addressing conflict can be uncomfortable. Addressing conflict without hostility or violence requires patience and compassion. Keeping an open mind and heart can mean we all must prepared for the possibility we may not get the immediate outcome (justice) we seek.

Negotiations: Understanding both sides of issues of conflict combined with a commitment to compassion, positions us resolve the situation. Consider win-win strategies that acknowledge the positive aspects of the other party. Look for the good in others without humiliation. Dr. King’s philosophy specifically called for us not to personally attack others. Focus on the change you seek without causing undue harm or shame to others.

Direct Action: If negotiating the issue reaches an impasse, Dr. King called for direct action in the form of protests, marches and strikes. Obviously, those forms of direct action would in most cases be extreme in a workplace environment. That said, companies can establish approaches and practices where employees can have a “safe place” where their issues are heard without fear of retaliation or threats to their employment. We encourage companies to support and invest in helping employees resolve seemingly intractable issues that materially impact their experience and/or performance.

Reconciliation: Ultimately, Dr. King sought friendship and understanding with the “opponent.” He did not seek to defeat the other side. Again, because he focused on changing unjust policies and acts, he desired to find ways for his opponent to “save face” by way of reasoned compromise. Through joint reconciliation both sides are empowered to move forward in friendship (as was demonstrated by Nelson Mandela in South Africa) to the benefit of the entire community.

More than 50 years later, Dr. King’s teachings and achievements still stand as an inspiration for all companies. His approach to building community through “love in action” is a way to manage workplace conflicts by creating a culture of engagement, respect and support that embraces differences – achieving positive change, peace and a path to organizational success.

Chance PattersonChance Patterson is a Strategic Advisor with True Blue Inclusion, providing counsel to leaders of corporations, social impact enterprises (including The King Center for Nonviolent Social Change) and public figures on a wide range of diversity, culture, reputation management, crisis communications, legal and organizational growth issues.