Alfonso and Joe worked in the warehouse of a tech company. One morning Joe, who was at one end of the warehouse, was unable to move a piece of heavy equipment. He waved to Alfonso, who was at the other end of the warehouse, and called to him to come help him. Alfonso became incensed when he saw Joe’s gesture and heard his call for help. Later Alfonso met with their supervisor, telling him that Joe’s behavior was offensive and that he needed to be reprimanded for it.
Ladder of Assumptions
Workplace Conflict at a Tech Company Warehouse
Stereotyping Leads to Conflicts
Today's workplace abounds with a tremendous variety of people, all with different viewpoints. No two employees have identical perspectives about themselves, another person, an event or a situation. It is not uncommon for workers to respond to dissimilar points of view that their co-workers may express with stereotypical labels. Being targeted with stereotypes may lead to co-workers retaliating with accusations and blame of their own. As a result, workers can become stressed, defensive and angry—reactions that often cause mistakes and costly delays to be made.
Stereotypes become substitutes for observing facts in a given situation. Most of us don't remember where our most deeply imbedded stereotypes came from. The situations that gave rise to these stereotypes are typically lost to memory. Before long, we come to think of our stereotypical labels as facts, but are unaware that we're several steps removed from the facts. While these generalized images help us define the world so that we can see it and understand it readily, they too often can cause misunderstandings and conflicts in our relationships with co-workers.
In Search of Mutual Understanding
Fortunately, Joe and Alfonso were able to work through their issues with the help of a mediator who was hired by their company. For Joe, a native Californian, his request for help from Alfonso was well within accepted behavior on the job. On the other hand, Alfonso, who came from a Latin American country and who was older than Joe, felt that Joe should have walked over to him and asked him respectfully for help. Alfonso labeled Joe as one of those young Americans who don’t show respect for their seniors - behavior that the company shouldn’t tolerate.
After spending considerable time talking through their issues with a mediator, both men finally realized that their differing preconceptions about what was acceptable on-the-job behavior had created their difficulties. Alfonso came to understand that Joe did not intend to offend him. Joe, in turn, saw that Alfonso’s expectations of workplace behavior were different from his own. Both men came to realize that their different viewpoints and reactions came from differences in background, culture and expectations. Joe ultimately apologized to Alfonso for his behavior in the warehouse and told him that in the future he would go directly to Alfonso if he needed help. Alfonso, in turn, accepted Joe’s apology and told him that Joe could call him any time for help and that he would not consider Joe’s behavior offensive.
Willingness to Question Long-held Assumptions
Conflicts in the workplace resulting from people locking horns with each other due to their divergent perspectives can be resolved if the individuals involved are willing to join in a search for greater mutual understanding of each other's viewpoints. The more willing they are to examine and question their long-held assumptions, the greater the hope that they can learn the skills to resolve their conflicts peacefully and to work together effectively.
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