Don’t Let Conflict Go Unchecked

By Kathy Gurchiek Aug 1, 2008
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Conflict is necessary for the health and survival of organizations, but unresolved workplace conflict can be toxic, according to a recent Employee Assistance Professionals Association webinar on “Managing Workplace Conflict.”

First reactions to workplace conflict are either to duck or fight, said Ronald H. Wean, webinar speaker and employee assistance program account manager for Employee Care, but “the mess of unresolved conflict deflects employees” from an organization’s mission and instead the “mission becomes individual survival.”

Unresolved conflict also politicizes the workplace, hastens the departure of talent and diverts time and energy from the organization’s mission to unraveling bigger problems that develop as a result of conflict, he said.

Wean urged employers to address the bigger questions that conflict raises, because conflict calls attention to a problem within the organization, tells it where to look and “starts a conversation,” he said.

A healthy work environment, he noted, is made up of people who communicate with respectful, non-offensive language; show tolerance and acceptance of differences within the workforce, and demonstrate respect for all individuals in the organization regardless of position, status or tenure.

During the hour-long July 24, 2008 webinar, Wean described five major types of workplace conflict:

  1. Unmet or unclarified needs—such as someone who did not get what he or she needed in order to do the job.
  2. Mismanagement of organizational change and transition.
  3. Competing job duties or poor implementation of a job description. For example, an employee in a non-supervisory position who is put in the unofficial role of “supervising” a new employee.
  4. Systemic conflict, such as a workforce slowdown.
  5. Personality conflict.

But most conflicts ascribed to a personality clash are not really personality conflicts, according to Wean. “A true personality conflict is a diversity issue” in which a worker’s gender, age and belief system becomes the basis for the conflict, he said.

Start at the Source

Wean said conflict resolution should always begin at the lowest levels rather than going up the chain of command because going up the chain takes you away from where the conflict lies. The conflict “gets lost in a black hole” of a committee “that comes up with policies that are irrelevant and punitive to all employees,” he said.

“You always look at where the conflict is,” he said. Wean also suggested keeping conflict resolution policies and procedures separate from grievance procedures because the intent of each policy differs. “The nature of conflict resolution is to resolve the conflict,” he said, while the nature of grievances is winning.

Instead, supervisors should empower employees to resolve the conflict on their own. “Don’t say ‘don’t worry. I’ll handle it for you’. …You want to teach them how to fish, you don’t want to give them a fish,” Wean said.

Instead, “give them a fishing pole” by:

  • Acknowledging, without blame or hostility, that the conflict exists.
  • Identifying the specific behavior in which the conflict is rooted.
  • Identifying how the behavior is causing a roadblock to a good working relationship.
  • Asking “What do you need from me in order for me to get what I need from you?”

The manager of the immediate supervisor overseeing the conflict doesn’t need to know all the details of the conflict throughout the resolution process, but does need to know enough to ascertain how the supervisor helped resolve the conflict and if the conflict is systemic, Wean said.

If it’s a systemic problem, the manager may need to call a departmental meeting to get feedback and to empower department heads most affected by the conflict to find a resolution.

In that case, those department heads should be publicly thanked for their efforts when a resolution is found, Wean advised.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at

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