Conflict at Work? Use Pre-departure Wisdom to Guide Your Next Move

September 07, 2016

By Samantha Martin

Are you in conflict at your office? We’ve all been there.

Something got unexpectedly pushed onto our plate, something was said, someone clammed up, someone lashed out, something got dropped, someone was overlooked, something went unnoticed, etc. And, we take offense.

It’s not a mystery why conflict upsets us. No matter the title or years of experience, work is important to us. We invested a lot of time and money to be eligible for the position we are in. We made sacrifices along the way. We want to be seen and valued. We want to grow and know that our work matters.

How do we move beyond trouble at the office? The same way we train our students to move through conflict when they go abroad.

Reserve your judgement. Challenge your own bias and assumptions. Ask good questions. Use humor when appropriate (or laugh at yourself). Acknowledge mistakes. Reflect on the situation and write about it. Apologize. Let it go.

If we developed intercultural skills, resilience, and perspective-taking when we lived abroad, why is engaging in healthy conflict at the office so hard?

First, humility is more difficult to come by in a familiar place. By contrast, when we travel, we know we are not the experts and more readily pause and reflect in the heat of the moment. At the office, it’s easier to jump to conclusions about the meaning of events, words, and other’s behaviors because they seem obvious to us. That assumption is dangerous because we forget to suspend our judgement. We forget to ask good questions.

Second, we are less likely to be hard on ourselves for making mistakes when we travel because we understand that we can’t always know the “right way” until we try and a local ally shows us the way. Yet even organizations that tout the value of “learning moments” through conflict abroad can lose sight of this when it comes to their own staff. Sometimes the unofficial memo is “we don’t take risks and we don’t mess up.”

Last, in a truly dangerous or toxic conflict situation, we train our students to recognize warning signs, tell someone, and get out. In our own work life, the decision to exit the scene feels less straightforward when our livelihood and stability depend on our job. Yet, even here, we’d do well to consider the wisdom of moving forward when healthy channels of moving through conflict as a professional are exhausted.

So, the next time you hit an edge and find yourself in conflict at the office, channel your inner adviser and draw from the cultural adjustment wisdom you share with your students.

Pause. Ask a good question. Withhold judgement. Learn. Let it go.


Samantha Martin is CEO of Via TRM (formerly Project Travel), a technology company that helps international educators recruit, advise, and enroll students through traveler relationship management software. She is a former study abroad adviser and has a MA in peace and conflict studies from the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland. For more resources, advice, and information to take your international education career to the next level, visit the NAFSA Career Center today.


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