In one of my favourite children’s books,[1] a panda named Stillwater teaches a young boy about the burden of unresolved conflict. The boy has had an argument with his brother, and instead of enjoying a day of swimming with Stillwater, the boy continues to talk about the conflict with his brother. The weight of this conflict is represented by all of the toys that the boy fills the pool with, and which he has to carry home.

Stillwater uses an old Zen Buddhist story to illustrate that they boy held on to the conflict, instead of having fun. In the story, two travelling monks see a young woman, acting rude and impatient, trying to step across a puddle. The younger monk walks by. The older monk picks her up and across the puddle. Author Jon J. Muth continues the story this way:

As they continued on their way, the young monk was brooding and preoccupied. After several hours, unable to hold his silence, he spoke out. “That woman back there was very selfish and rude, but you picked her up on your back and carried her! Then she didn’t even thank you!”

“I set the woman down hours ago,” the older monk replied. “Why are you still carrying her?”

And so it is with unresolved interpersonal conflict. As Joseph P. Folger and Robert A. Baruch Bush point out in their book, The Promise of Mediation: The Transformative Approach to Conflict, people engaged in conflict become weak and self-absorbed, ruminating about the other person, demonizing them, and becoming suspicious about them. These destructive, negative feelings not only impair the happiness and productivity of the parties to the conflict, but have the potential to adversely affect the morale of the people around them.

Typically, employers respond to workplace misconduct with discipline. This is reflected in workplace policies, which frequently only refer to discipline as the means to address policy breaches. Discipline punishes the offender, and warns him or her that the behavior is unacceptable. What discipline doesn’t do is address the underlying causes of the conflict, or improve the individual’s ability to handle conflict in the future. The risk of not offering assistance to people in conflict to overcome their negative, destructive feelings is that they will remain focused on the conflict, and carry it with them to work every day, with the associated negative effects on job satisfaction, productivity, morale, and even health.

Workplace policies governing behavior such as discrimination, harassment and bullying should evolve to include responses that not only punish and warn the offender, but also seek to restore a positive working relationship and even enhance the individuals’ ability to handle conflict more generally in the future.

For more information on restorative workplace practices, such as mediation, in the wake of a workplace investigation, contact Gail Gatchalian.


[1] Zen Shorts by Jon J. Muth