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What Bert and Ernie can teach us about workplace conflict

Posted by Hannah Price | 3 min read

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At some point, almost all of us have had that moment in the workplace where we wanted to strangle the person sitting next to us. Getting along with everyone isn’t always easy, especially when quirks and mannerisms get in the way. But, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie are a classic example of how opposite personalities can effectively coexist in a small environment. They fought and bickered, yet they always found a way to remain friends. In fact, they were created to teach children that people with different personalities can get along.

It’s about time some adults revisited these lessons. Working with a conflicting personality type can be frustrating, stressful, and draining, but there are healthy ways to manage your differences and build teamwork in your workplace. When you feel your blood pressure start to rise, try to remember these four insights:

1. Balance is necessary

There’s a theory that Muppets (and people) are divided into two groups: Chaos and Order. Chaos Muppets are the free spirited, emotional, and crazy ones- Animal and Grover (and Ernie, if he was a Muppet). On the other hand, Order Muppets are extremely organized and averse to surprises. This group includes Kermit the Frog and Scooter (and Bert, if he were a Muppet).

As a group, the Muppets are balanced, and the same can be said for a good workplace. Too much of one personality can make for a boring and disengaged workforce, too much of another can lead to disorganization and poor productivity. If you fall in the Order category, working with Chaos colleagues can be frustrating at times, but remember that the more diverse a group is, the better its chance for success. A workplace full of Berts is as disastrous as a workplace full of Ernies.

2. Don’t fear disagreements, embrace them

In virtually every conflict there’s the potential for a teaching or learning opportunity. Wherever there is disagreement, there’s a huge opportunity for growth and development. A team of Chaos personalities may seem appealing if you identify with Ernie, but without challenges from an Bert-like person, your work will eventually become unvaried and predictable.   

If you’re a leader, manage conflict wisely. It should be leveraged for team building. Conflict should not be hurtful or disrespectful. Opposing opinions addressed properly can stimulate unlimited innovation and discussion. Be a wise leader and look for the upside in all contradictory ideas.

3. Recognize differences, don’t criticize them

To many people, Bert appears the more competent in the Bert & Ernie partnership. He seems smarter, more logical, and more willing to finish tasks. But, would that make him the better employee? Not necessarily.

Consider Ernie’s skills and traits - he’s unconcerned with trivial things but is often interested in trying new things. He also doesn’t take himself too seriously and enjoys having a good time. These are all laudable characteristics, and they directly contrast those of Bert.

Though Bert and Ernie bring very different skills to the table, they’re both of value. The lesson for adults is to appreciate each other’s attributes -  no matter how different they are from our own. Being spontaneous is no more of a flaw than planning things too carefully.

4. Ensure employees are in the right role

If Bert was a kindergarten teacher, customer success rep, or in a public facing sales role, I imagine he would fail miserably. He simply doesn’t have the flair and people skills required. Similarly, Ernie would struggle as an accountant, data entry person, or IT programmer. In other words, Bert’s perfectionism and Ernie’s frivolous demeanor are equally valuable, as long as they’re in roles suited to their strengths.

If you’re a leader, it’s best to guide your employees into the roles that are  complemented by their characteristics.

“Managers should match employees to projects that are a good fit for their talents, skills, and strengths so employees are inspired to be focused and productive during as much of the workday as possible.” - Gallup, State of the American Workplace 2017


Conclusion

There are Berts and Ernies in workplaces around the globe and both are equally important to innovation, creativity, and productivity. When you’re clashing with a colleague, it’s important to remember that their opinion isn’t wrong, it’s just different. You need to find a way to communicate respectfully through these differences. If two opposing Muppets are able to remain best friends despite living in such close quarters, there’s definitely hope for the rest of us.

This article is based on a piece originally written by Kelly Batke at Jostle.

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