How to handle workplace conflict

  • by kaibizzen
  • Jun 02, 2022
  • Blog

Once upon a time, a Mullah (a Muslim religious leader), was on his way to Mecca on his camel. Coming to an oasis he saw three men standing there, crying. So he stopped the camel and asked, “My children, what is the matter?” And they answered, “Our father just passed away, and we loved him so much.” The Mullah replied, “I am sure he loved you too, and no doubt he has left something behind for you?”

The three men answered, “Yes, he did indeed. He left behind camels. And in his will it is stated 1/2 to the eldest son, 1/3 to the second and 1/9 to the youngest. We love camels, we agree with the parts to each. But there is a problem: he left behind 17 camels and we have been to school, we know that 17 is a prime number. Loving camels we cannot divide them.”

The mullah thought for a while, and then said, “I can give you my camel; then you have 18.” And they started to protest: “No, you cannot do that, you are on your way to something important.” The mullah interrupted them, “My children, take the camel, go ahead.” So they divided the camels according to the father’s instructions:

  • 18 divided by 2 = 9, so the eldest son got 9 camels.
  • 18 divided by 3 = 6, so the second son got 6 camels.
  • 18 divided by 9 = 2, so the youngest son got 2 camels.
  • Thus the three sons got 9 + 6 + 2 = 17 camels in all.

One camel remained standing alone: the mullah’s camel. The mullah said: “Are you happy? Well, then, maybe I can get my camel back?” And the three men, full of gratitude, said, “Of course,” not quite understanding what had happened. The mullah blessed them, mounted his camel, and the last they saw was a tiny cloud of dust, quickly settling in the glowing evening sun.

There’s nothing like a story to help us as business coaches elicit some powerful learnings.  

How the Mullah can help us handle conflict in the workplace

  1. The Mullah noticed a situation that needed attention and acted on his observations.  The biggest reason why many workplace conflicts don’t get resolved is that business leaders don’t notice it in the first place, or will hope it resolves itself. In my experience of working with people, more people than not are conflict averse. They see that conflict as a bad thing.  Hence they are not attuned to conflict, or they want to avoid it.

    Using the stages of team development as a model to have a high performing team – forming, storming, norming and performing.  There is not one group of people coming together in history, whether it be home, work or sport that goes straight to performing.  Even the performing teams have to go through storming.  Unfortunately, MOST groups do not get past storming.  Why? Because it’s all too hard.  Instead, we’ll all pretend it’s not happening, we’ll stay “nice” towards each other.  In my experience of life, it’s the dirt in the carpet that wears it out more than anything else.  Sweeping it all under the carpet might work in the short term, but NEVER in the long term.

    How does a team get past storming?  Firstly, see conflict as a good thing – it’s an opportunity to improve something and find the BEST solution.  Most importantly, it’s an opportunity to move closer to having a performing team in your workplace.

  2. The Mullah stopped what he was doing and asked the sons what was happening for them right now.  He listened and responded to their problem with great wisdom – looking for something “positive” to build on.

    Many business leaders don’t stop when conflict arises.  Their risk aversion prevents them from looking at the situation objectively, hence they are unable to ask the best questions to find out what the real problem is.  Most focus on the symptoms not the problem.  Many leaders have poor listening skills.  Talking rather than listening is the road most commonly travelled.

  3. The Mullah knew that the sons indeed had a challenge.  The sons too knew that 17 was a prime number.  That means it could only be divided by itself or 1 and the camels were never going to be divided as per the father’s wish.  Between them they were unable to come up with a solution. It meant that the solution to this problem was going to have to be outside of the square.

    When people are emotional, it’s very difficult for them to come up with the solution.  The Mullah however was able to remain objective and see a solution.  He knew that by adding 1 more camel to the mix, the total number of camels would make a complex number (18), which meant it was going to be easily divisible.

    His solution worked a treat. The sons were able to split up the camels as their father wished, and he even got his own camel back – it was a win all round!

  4. The Mullah finally checked that everyone was satisfied with the outcome and then he moved on to do what he was originally doing.

As a business leader, there are many situations that we face that require us to have wisdom.  Wisdom is only found when we’re able to step back and clearly and unemotionally assess a situation. In my experience as both a business owner and business coach, this is most easily achieved by people who are not intimately involved, yet still invested in coming to the best solution. 

This is where our experience as Brisbane business coaches is most valuable. Our clients are able to leverage our years of experience and outside perspective in order to gain the wisdom they need to create the business and lifestyle they want. Why not see for yourself? Contact us today!

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