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Conflict Resolution: In the Office or at the Oscars- HR Affiliates Blog

By now, everyone with access to the internet knows some of the exciting news from Sunday night’s Oscars, whether or not they are a fan of the star-studded affair.  The annual awards show is no stranger to controversy – whether it’s the wrong winner announced (2017), unexpected displays of affection (2003), rejected awards (1971, 1973 and 1936), or even a naked man running across stage (1974), there’s usually some spectacle to see.

This year, however, may have created the most uncomfortable moment for everyone watching, and especially for those involved.  Audiences were not quite sure if it was a joke, a staged moment, or if they were about to witness a live action fight scene, but everyone was shocked to see actor Will Smith advance onto the stage and strike host comedian Chris Rock after Rock made a joke regarding Smith’s wife, actress Jada Pinkett Smith.  Now, there are two sides to every story and the internet is all abuzz with who was wrong –  was Rock wrong for making the joke and Smith right for defending his wife?  Or was Rock right in making a joke in typical Oscar fashion and Smith wrong in overreacting and assaulting him?  The Oscars aren’t necessarily known for good humor and great taste in jokes – but I suppose it’s not the good ones you remember (remember when Ellen DeGeneres introduced the great Liza Minelli as a male impersonator, and called her “sir? Or when actress Melissa Leo walked off with Kirk Douglas’s cane?)

Regardless of whether Rock was insensitive or Smith was overreacting, I think we can all agree that the situation could have been handled a little better.  So, before your newly inspired employees think that slapping offensive co-workers in the latest Hollywood trend, perhaps it’s a good time to review some basics of Conflict Resolution.

  1. If someone offends you, it’s right to let them know. However, time and place are critical here.  Let the person know in private, after you’ve had a chance to calm down a bit if you are too upset to handle your emotions.  You want to resolve the situation, not escalate it.  A public stage in front of a live televised audience is not the best choice.
  2. Engage in communication. Talking with the other person doesn’t mean you are going to give them a pass on their behavior. However, it not only gives you a chance to explain that you have been offended and why, but it let’s them explain where they were coming from.  Maybe they meant to make you mad, but maybe they had no idea you’d take it so personally.  I’m not in a position to defend Chris Rock, but I will say that I saw Pinkett Smith in a recent video discussing her medical condition and she said that all she could do was laugh about it.  Sooooo, maybe Rock thought that meant that she was willing to laugh about it, whether it was tasteful or not.  Engaging in conversation lets both people talk, and hopefully both people listen and hear, so they can go to the next step.
  3. Establish boundaries and relationships. What’s off limits?  What’s okay?  What kind of communication is going to keep interactions healthy moving forward?   It seems boundaries are especially an issue for celebrities – they put everything out there and their audiences seem to expect to know everything about them.  Know any employee relationships like that?  Boundaries are important to let your peers know what is acceptable by you, and what is not.
  4. Develop an action plan. Establish where you go from here.  If that means apologies now followed by changed behavior, then that’s what you do.  If it means more dialogue to help better understand one another’s perspectives, then that’s what you do.  The goal is to have a plan to continue to improve so that the conflict isn’t repeated.  Understand that that plan may involve personal improvement plans for each person involved – not just their relationship with one another.  Perhaps Rock would improve with a plan to recognize the context of the person he’s joking about to make sure he’s not being insensitive; perhaps Smith would improve with some steps to manage anger and impulses in a way that will bring resolution.
  5. Gain commitment. Now that there are boundaries, and a plan, all parties should agree. And stick to it.  The best apology, after all, is changed behavior.

Think about how Sunday night’s incident could have gone so differently if Smith had gone to Rock after the show and said, “hey, man, what you said about my wife wasn’t cool – it hurt her feelings”.  And then Rock said, “dude, I had no idea, let me go apologize to her” and then followed up with a great IG post about how beautiful Jada is.  Maybe it would take more than that – but it would have been a much better start than the meme fodder we have now.   Plus, we teach our kids from the earliest age to use our words and not our hands, so in my humble HR opinion, regardless of who you think was wrong or right, what was needed was more words and heart to heart, and not a slap to the head.

What do you think?  Could a simple conflict resolution process have solved this drama?


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