Saturday, November 5, 2016

Workplace Conflict

In Season 2 of The Office, Michael takes over Toby’s job of HR manager to manage conflict between office members.  It starts when he hears Oscar yelling about Angela’s offensive poster.  He’s really just venting his feelings to Toby, but Michael decides that it is an important issue that needs to be addressed.  
At first, he tries to get Oscar to dismiss the problem, saying “So what, you’ve having a little spat.  I forget, aren’t you two dating?” Michael’s initial response to this issue is problematic for many reasons.  He invalidates Oscar’s feelings when he says that the problem is just a “little spat.”  He then goes on to probably offend Oscar when he asks if the two are dating - Oscar is openly gay.  
Once Toby convinces Michael that his response to the situation was not ideal, Michael decides to give conflict resolution a try.  He gets Angela and Oscar together in the conference room to discuss the issue face-to-face and takes  out his “Mediator’s Tool Chest.”  He begins to read aloud from the tool chest to educate Angela and Oscar on the “5 styles of conflict.”  Angela immediately asks to leave, “because I have lots of work to do”, and Oscar asks to get the process over-with as well.  Despite their complaints, Michael explains each painstakingly-obvious definition in order, starting with Lose-Lose.  “A Lose-Lose situation is when both parties lose.  This is the most ineffective style…” he says.  “Now I have to ask you, do you want to pursue a lose-lose situation?”  Ultimately, the best scenario is the win-win-win, a situation in which both Angela and Oscar are happy with the outcome, and Michael “wins” for having successfully mediated a conflict in the workplace.
Angela and Oscar are in a fight over an “offensive” poster on Angela’s desk.  Michael walks them both over to the poster and asks each of them to express their feelings using “I statements” and “emotion statements”.  Angela states that she got the poster as a gift, appreciates its artistic value, and wants to see it every day.  Oscar finds the poster rude, offensive, and creepy.  He doesn’t want to have to look at it, and he does not think that it’s real art.  
Next, Michael decides that they should all “brainstorm creative alternatives” to find a win-win-win solution.  He immediately comes up with the idea that Angela makes the poster into a t-shirt for Oscar to wear every day.  That way, he can never see it, but Angela gets to see it every time she looks at Oscar.  Michael is happy because the way he sees it, both of them are winning in this scenario, and he came up with the solution (so he wins too).  
When neither Oscar nor Angela can come up with their own solution, Pam suggests that Angela gets to hang the poster on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  According to Michael, however, that would be classified as solution number 3 known as compromise, which is “not ideal.”  Michael ranks every solution to the problem which he thinks is possible:

3. Compromise: Angela gets to hang the poster on Tuesdays and Thursdays
2. Win-lose: Take the poster down so Oscar won’t have to look at something he finds  
1. Win-win-win: Have Oscar wear a t-shirt of the poster

According to Michael’s manual, a win-win-win situation is always best, so he makes the executive decision that Angela should make the t-shirt.  Michael’s view of the situation is selfish, apathetic, and hastily made.  If anything, he has made the problem worse instead of making it a “win-win-win situation.”    He listens to Angela and Oscar’s sides of the situation, but he takes them too literally.  As a result, he comes up with a solution that makes them both worse off.  Angela has to take down her poster, and Oscar has to wear a t-shirt displaying a poster he finds offensive.  Essentially, Michael takes the conflict-resolution manual too seriously.  He loses sight of the real issue, which is about Angela and Oscar’s feelings, only to come up with a solution that can technically be classified as win-win-win.  If Michael could look closely, however, he would see that it is more like a lose-lose-lose solution.  Angela is left unhappy, Oscar is left unhappy, and Michael hasn’t “resolved” anything.  Angela and Oscar let Michael charge ahead with his solution by reluctantly agreeing to do what he said.  
The show moved on, and the conflict was never truly resolved.  The most ironic thing of all is that if Michael hadn’t decided to step in in the first place, Oscar would have just finished venting to Toby about the problem and moved on.
Michael’s idea that “bringing conflict out into the open” can solve problems causes further problems throughout the episode.  Michael asks to see written records of all the complaints people have every made to Toby about problems they’ve had with others in the workplace.  Toby refuses, saying that it would infringe on everyone’s privacy, but Michael proceeds to snatch it out of Toby’s hands.  “I had to use win-lose that time,” Michael says, “It isn’t pretty.”   
He decides to sort out his newly acquired pile of workplace conflicts by reading them out loud to everyone.  He says that since Toby merely listened to everyone’s problems then waited for them to forget about it, he hates to see such angry feelings festering in the workplace; he decided they must be let out into the open.  Michael effectively makes everyone angry with each other for bringing up old dirt (most of the complaints were marked “redacted”, meaning that the complainer decided to remove the complaint anyway).  
Every single conflict in the episode could have been avoided if Michael had decided to just mind his own business.  Sometimes, bringing conflict out into the open (through a “cage match” to put it in Michael’s words) does more harm than good.  One lesson I’ve learned from this episode is to keep any complaints about others to myself.  The most important one, however, is that listening to people’s problems rather than jumping to a solution is essential.  


  1. I read a few paragraphs and then stopped. I had no idea of what is going on. I've never watched the show and didn't know what you were talking about. Perhaps somebody else who was a regular viewer would say you've done a good job in explaining what happened. As for me, I needed a lot more setup of the situation before you start talking about who did what.

    I do have a feeling that this show, simply by the nature of its title, might actually illuminate on conflict that does occur at work. But I'm afraid I couldn't penetrate your piece.


    1. Hi Professor Arvan,

      I'm sorry that my post was too confusing. I've made a clarification post which can be found here:

      Please let me know if this clears up the conflict I described. I hope it helps makes it easier for readers who have never seen the show before.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I am not that familiar with the office, but I am intrigued my the idea of a lose-lose situation as it pertains to workplace conflict. In most compromises that I have been a part of, I feel like I am being cheated in that moment. However, often times I come out better off than the other person. This may be that I am a good negotiator when there is a mediator involved or I am just lucky. What is a fair resolution in a workplace? Is it the resolution that gets people working effectively as soon as possible and is that always the morally right plan of action?