Saturday 4 October 2014

Conflict at Work

This week I was discussing an ongoing work situation with an ex-colleague who is involved in a long standing dispute. I have been reflecting how conflict at work can start with a relatively small incident but the ripples can quickly become amplified. In my experience the consequences not only affect the two parties involved but a range of other colleagues. This occurs as the two primary parties become entrenched and attempt to recruit colleagues and managers to support their stance (and join their bunkers).

This can cause a rapid deterioration in productivity, impact adversely on the health of those involved, significantly damage organisational culture and ultimately, the bottom line.

Workplace Conflict - Stage 1

Workplace Conflict - Stage 2

Workplace Conflict - Stage 3

Differences in Perspective

A great deal of workplace conflict originates with a difference in perspective. One model to explain these differences can be presented in a rather neat graph. The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument is a self scoring assessment which is designed to measure how a person will behave in a conflict situation.  

You'll see it has two dimensions and characterises five different response modes in conflict situations.  The model can also be used to make people more aware of their conflict style.  Think about a time in your life when you've been in conflict.  Using this graph - can you identify your response mode in that situation?

The Solution 

The solution relies on not ignoring the early warning signs and taking action before opinions and positions become too entrenched.  We need to ensure that line managers have the skills and courage to explore a potential issues as soon as they spot it.  In small organisations, the issues may be easier to spot but someone needs to be equipped with the status and techniques to resolve the situation.

The skills required are not easy and their execution requires a mixture of procedure and art. 

An alternative solution is to use an expert third party to explore and hopefully resolve the issues as soon as they are spotted, using a technique such as mediation.


The principles of mediation are deceptively simple.  It provides an easily understandable framework which allows both parties in a dispute to have their say, explore and understand their differences and if possible to settle them. This process is managed and facilitated by a third party. An agreement is often reached on the way forward - this is determined by the parties involved - not the mediator.

As someone who is accredited to mediate I have applied my skills on numerous occasions to resolve (sometimes longstanding) workplace disputes.  I also use elements of the skills on a far more frequent basis.  

It's not a process for the faint hearted and requires the agreement of both parties.  Often it's easier as a mediator to be completely independent from the organisation so you are completely separated from the politics.

If you'd like to know more, discuss a situation in your workplace or perhaps run a workshop to raise self awareness and the psychological principles involved in conflict, please don't hesitate to get in touch.



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