Conflict may start as a minor rumbling, but if nothing
is done about it, it may escalate to something more
serious. Chris Rowe explains how you can tell when
conflict is brewing, and what you should do about it.
onflict is rather like toothache. It often starts with a minor rumbling, and if nothing
is done about it, escalates to a situation which cannot be ignored. Like toothache,
it is rarely resolved without some kind of intervention. With toothache, extraction
is the ultimate intervention, but a professional will need to diagnose the problem before
taking that course.
So it is in the workplace. Diagnosis is the key, and the earlier the better. So what is
conflict all about, how can you tell when conflict is brewing, and what interventions may
What is conflict?
Conflict is inevitable because it is about the different perceptions and feelings of different
individuals. Because conflict is based on perceptions and feelings, it’s usually unhelpful
to apply reality and facts in an attempt to resolve it.
MAY 2010 employment today 17
Often it’s the lack of any apparent event prior to conflict
becoming evident which creates such a dilemma for
employers. They can’t understand why things used
to be okay, and then suddenly seem to have changed.
In his book Mediating Dangerously, Kenneth Cloke lists some percep- Alice was really effective in her new role and developed a good
tive definitions of conflict which draw attention to some symptoms working relationship with Joe. Over time, other members of the
of conflict we often see in the workplace: management team, including Alice’s good friend Liz, were apparently
• “Conflict is a lack of acceptance of ourselves that we have not so happy, and murmurings started about Joe playing favourites,
projected onto others, a way of blaming others for what we and people started taking sides (camp-forming).
perceive as failures in our own lives; Before long a number of close friendships in the business were
• Conflict is a way of getting attention, acknowledgement, sympathy on hold, there was rumour and speculation about what different
or support by casting ourselves as the victim of some evil-doer; members of the management team were paid, who had access to a
• Conflict represents a lack of skill or experience at being able to company vehicle and why, and the operations of the business were
handle a certain kind of behaviour; beginning to suffer.
• Conflict represents a lack of listening, a failure to appreciate the On the surface in this business there was now tension. It was
subtlety in what someone else is saying.” clear that everyone’s movements were being watched. Who was
As Gregory Tillett suggests in his book Resolving Conflict, workplace going for coffee with whom? Who was going to trade shows? Who
conflicts tend to be symptoms of underlying problems rather than was in Joe’s office and for how long? Where was the company car
self-contained individual problems. Of course, interpersonal disputes that was usually available for everyone’s use?
in a range of areas occur in the workplace, but the conflict which It took interviews with all the key players to find out what was
we observe in workplaces is usually about much more than inter- going on for them. The incidents which had apparently contributed
personal incompatibility. to the conflict were:
Often it’s the lack of any apparent event prior to conflict becom- • Alice’s role was not clearly defined. She was given a list of tasks
ing evident which creates such a dilemma for employers. They can’t and she got on and did them very well. But Alice had no idea
understand why things used to be okay, and then suddenly seem that there was some overlap with what one of the longer-standing
to have changed. employees had been doing previously.
• Importantly Alice was also not aware of any impact of this on
How does conflict present in the workplace? others.
Here is a real example of a workplace conflict where interpersonal • Joe kept giving Alice more responsibility because she was, like
incompatibility could have been interpreted as the cause, but turned him, a ‘doer’, and he felt he could depend on her. He was not
out not to be a significant factor. taking work away from others and he could not understand
Joe was appointed as new general manager of a seasonal export (when told) that his staff saw it differently.
business‡. He was appointed by the board because he was young, • Joe had no intention of offending other management staff
enthusiastic, and had runs on the board in a related business in the who had served the firm well before he arrived. However, he
same industry. was more focused on the ‘now’ than on rewarding longevity.
Being a seasonal business there was a core staff during the off This seemed like a kick in the teeth for longer-serving
season and a big influx of temporary workers during the export employees.
season. The core staff were mostly long-serving local employees The most important step to resolving this conflict was for an in-
who were good at their jobs, and used to a more traditional and dependent person to listen to what each of the individuals had to
relaxed style of management. say, and try to get to the bottom of any concerns they had. Once
After Joe had been in the job for a few months he decided to the employees felt comfortable about sharing their concerns and
appoint to his management team a member of the casual team who anxieties, there followed a series of mini mediations between parties
had proven herself and was well-liked in the production team, and who had fallen out.
who he believed had the ability and energy to manage the workforce In every case, apologies were exchanged, and all of the manage-
recruitment. Alice was particularly good friends with the marketing ment team then agreed to meet as a group a month later. There they
manager, Liz. Alice was doing some university study in employment agreed on some working guidelines for their relationships in the
and marketing, and Joe saw her as having excellent potential given future. This whole process took two days.
the wider business goals. These kinds of conflicts never resolve overnight. It takes time for
people to regain the trust they had previously. But once people are
Names and identifying characteristics have been changed. aware of the issues which contributed to the conflict, and have been
18 employment today MAY 2010
Workpl ace co n f l i c t
taught some good tools to use for the future, there is less likely to misconduct need to be dealt with in the normal way. But the fol-
be an ongoing problem. lowing sequence may be helpful when it is hard to find out what
In summary, this particular workplace conflict arose from some is going on.
underlying lack of clarity about job roles, and also some changes • Raise your concerns at a staff meeting and offer an open door
in the management goals. It presented some ugly problems, but the for any employees who wish to discuss matters;
outcome of working through them was very positive. • Listen, listen, listen;
• Have an informal chat with the employee/s;
So how can you tell when conflict is brewing? • Engage an independent person to conduct an investigation;
There are some fairly reliable pointers. • Report back or work together on guidelines for the future.
1. Frequent absenteeism or excessive working hours of an employee. Specialists in supervisor training will tell you that the major reason
People who are happy in their work usually take very little sick employees don’t do aspects of their job, or do them incorrectly, is
and injury leave. Supervisors and perhaps the payroll coordinator that they don’t know how to do them.
need to be alert to employees taking excessive sick leave. People Conflict is no different. It is helpful for employees to be given
who stay at work at the expense of a personal life are also often some guidance in communication for when they are involved in a
unhappy. conflictual situation at work. Many people hate confrontation and
2. Employees emailing instead of speaking directly with colleagues
even when they sit next to each other, particularly if this is out
3. An employee looks sleep deprived and is moody at work. An
employee who is brooding on something might be unable to let
it go, leading to sleeplessness and subsequent agitation at work.
4. Change of character: The usually bubbly employee is sullen and
reserved. The usually helpful employee is doing only what is
required. This is a sure sign of some issue which will escalate.
Perhaps there is misinformation in the office about something.
If so, it needs to be corrected.
5. Signs of stress in an employee. Employees who have back and
neck problems, skin problems, negative attitude, defensive be-
haviour, tearfulness, short tempers, excessive smoking breaks,
lack of concentration, etc.
6. Disrespectful behaviour to employer or other employees. This is
a sure sign that relationships are not working. You need to get
to the bottom of the problem, rather than conduct a discipline
7. Harassment or bullying in the workplace.
8. People described as “high conflict personalities” by Bill Eddy in
his book High Conflict People in Legal Disputes. The argument is
that there are people whose emotions are characteristically exag-
gerated and whose behaviour is repeatedly inappropriate. Minor
problems around these people tend to become major disputes,
and they always have someone to blame.
So what should managers do when they
become aware of a potential problem?
There are a number of options, depending on the circumstances.
Obviously any individual incidents of harassment or other serious
MAY 2010 employment today 19
Wo r k p l ac o f WELLNESS
A C U LT U R E e conflic t
will do anything to avoid addressing an issue of concern directly need at least one perceptive person in your management team who
with the person who offended them. But that’s often the best way of understands the signs and picks up on bad vibes. Or it could be a
dealing with the matter before it escalates. They need some practice trusted advisor on the end of the telephone who you can talk to
and guidance in how to do it. for guidance.
Simple advice can really assist, like employees being given per- Just like toothache, it’s usually a great relief when the problem
mission to have someone with them to support them when they has been shared with a professional. Then you’re on the road to
tell a colleague they were offended about an incident, or to ask a diagnosis and an appropriate intervention.
colleague what is going on. Unlike toothache, your workplace cannot tell you where the pain
A set of published guidelines on what to do if you have a com- is. It will sometimes take some significant drilling down to work
plaint or conflict can also be helpful. out the best procedure or intervention. et
As in the real example above, the underlying cause or beginning
of conflict is often less about interpersonal relationships, and more
Chris Rowe is a mediator, employment relations advisor and
about lack of clarity about roles and policies, and/or poor supervi- investigator in private practice. She is based in the Rodney
sion or management. In other words, it’s often not what it seems. district and works mainly throughout the Auckland and
Northland regions. Visit: www.conflictsolutions.co.nz
Awareness of the likely causes of conflict is critical to dealing
with conflict effectively so that it does not become entrenched. You
A morning with
Edward de Bono Friday 14 May 2010
“ Great business competitors are great
lateral thinkers...” Edward de Bono
The Human Resources Institute of New Zealand is
delighted to be hosting EDWARD DE BONO, the
world leader in lateral thinking and the European
Ambassador for Thinking.
‘A morning with Edward de Bono’ will be an opportunity for
you to hear from this world leader in creative thinking in a
special half day session where he will share with you his
thoughts, beliefs, ideas and values of creative thinking.
When: Friday 14th of May
Where: Duxton Hotel, Wakefield Street, Wellington
Buy tickets online at www.hrinz.org.nz
Tickets are limited to 400
20 employment today MAY 2010