Why would a group of people who were literally trying to kill each other one day, joyfully celebrate together the very next day? And, can you learn any lessons from these people that might help you minimize or deal with conflict in your work environment?
On Thursday, Dec. 24, 1914 on the Western Front of World War I, opposing troops sat in muddy trenches in the Flanders region of Belgium. Many of the necessary ingredients of human conflict were present: A miserable physical environment, stress, guns, bullets and the mentality on both sides that the opponents were villains, idiots or inhumane barbarians.
German soldiers dug into trenches on one side of the battlefield. British, French and Allied soldiers occupied trenches on the other side. In some cases, the opposing combatants were less than 100 yards apart and could hear the murmur of each other’s voice. The trenches were wet, dirty, cold, crowded and uncomfortable.
It was Christmas Eve and both sides received holiday packages from their respective homelands. Among the other items, soldiers on the German side received small Christmas trees and candles. These candles and small trees ultimately triggered a chain of events that within a few hours turned one of the ultimate forms of aggressive behavior – warfare – into peaceful cooperation.
As night began to fall, a few German soldiers placed small trees with lighted candles along the leading edge of their trench. Soon afterwards, the Germans began singing carols. The British didn’t understand the words, but they knew the tunes and began singling along with the Germans. Suddenly signs began popping up on the German side saying, “You no fight – We no fight.” The British eventually reciprocated by holding up signs that said, “Merry Christmas.” As more signs popped up, communication between the two sides escalated and hostility de-escalated. An agreement was reached between the sides. There would be no hostility for the rest of the night and none on Christmas Day.
Soon soldiers from both sides began coming out of their respective trenches into no-man’s land. In a short time, the former enemies were greeting each other, exchanging gifts of wine, tobacco, chocolate, cognac and bread. They shared family photos, dined together and played soccer all up and down the former battlefield.
These shared activities temporarily defused the tension and the “us versus them” mentality that fueled the former hostility. Even after the Christmas Truce ended, many of the soldiers in the opposing trenches no longer thought of each other as villains, idiots or inhumane barbarians. And they no longer had a desire to kill each other.
What do you think you would have done if you were a soldier in the trenches on Dec. 24, 1914? More importantly, now that you know a little more about what happens when “us versus them” thinking is present or absent, what do you think you should do about such thinking in your workplace? Here’s an idea to think about: Let there be peace at work and let it begin with me!
Chris Crouch is CEO of DME Training and Consulting and author of several books on improving productivity. Contact him through www.dmetraining.com.