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This is an excerpt from Conflict Prevention In The Workplace - Using Cooperative Communication, published by Robert Bacal. All contents Copyright © 1998 Robert Bacal and may not be reproduced. Ordering information can be found by clicking here.
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Conflict In Organizations - An Overview

One workplace issue that generates frequent expressions of emotion, frustration and anger is conflict. For some people it makes their workday just a little less enjoyable. For others, the frequency and intensity of workplace conflict around them makes them a bit more than "uncomfortable". And for some people, workplace conflicts have reached the point where they are at wit's end, where they consider leaving the organization. Workplace conflict, once it reaches certain levels does something more than cause minor problems. Organizations and teams frequently immersed in conflict situations tend to have lower morale levels, lower productivity, higher turnover, and more employee burn-out. If you think for a moment about your own workplace experiences, you will easily understand what we mean. Even a single ongoing "personality conflict" can make coming to work a dreaded process.

Before we discuss other issues about workplace conflict and how each of us can work to prevent it, we need to understand what workplace conflict means, and the different kinds of conflict that occur. Some conflicts are actually good; some not so good, and some downright ugly.

The Inevitability of Conflict

Conflict occurs naturally when people interact. Eventually if you and I are working together on a work task, we are going to disagree about how something should be done, or what each of us should be doing to get the task done, or perhaps some other issue like how I might be treating you, or vice versa. That's normal, and in fact there is a positive aspect about it. When you and I disagree, and even get into heated conversation, it means that you and I CARE enough about the issue to take a stand and advocate and argue for what we believe is best.

Teams, organizations, and even individuals need conflict interactions to grow. New ideas can emerge from conflicts--new ways of thinking and doing things that can be useful to everyone.

So long as we work together in teams and organizations, and people care about what they are doing and how they are treated, we will have disagreements and conflict in the workplace. We can't eliminate all conflict. Neither would we want to because we would lose an important way to grow our teams, organizations and ourselves.

The catch is that there are two kinds of conflict that are not growth producing or productive. The first is conflict that is unnecessary--that occurs as a result of the language we use with each other. For example, if, in a meeting, I call another team-member an "effing idiot", I would be creating a conflict which is not likely to be productive or constructive. The second kind of conflict is conflict that, regardless of the issue, is dealt with in ways that make the conflict unresolvable, and where each person's behaviour is akin to throw 
ing gasoline onto a fire.

Good Organizational Conflict

Good organizational conflict is conflict and disagreement that allows the organization or people in it to grow, solve problems more effectively, and counter-balance the inertia that most organizations develop. Good organizational conflict contributes to helping people examine that which the take for granted, old ways of doing things that may no longer be optimal, and stimulate creativity and problem solving.

For organizations to benefit from conflict a few things need to happen. People in the organization need to be able to separate the personal, emotional aspects of conflict from the problem-solving parts. When people become overly invested in their positions, they tend to make organizational enemies as conflicts become more and more personalized. Personalization means that people forget they are on the same side and see each other as very personal enemies.

Second, people in the organization need the skills and understanding required to interact in conflict situations so they avoid escalating conflicts into the bad and ugly ranges. They need to understand how to "fight fair", and stay focused on problem-solving.

Ugly Conflict

Ugly conflict is the flip side of the coin. Ugly conflict occurs when the conflict is unnecessary or is handled so it becomes a personal confrontation between the people or sides. What starts as a reasonable disagreement escalates into a situation where considerable bad feelings are generated, and the shift is made to "defeating" each other, rather than solving the initiating issue.

People often use the term "personality conflict" to refer to ugly conflict between two people, particularly when the situation has occurred over time and over many issues. It isn't that two people involved in a personality conflict have a specific identifiable disagreement. They just can't stand each other. If one says white the other says black. When one says let's go for pizza, the other wants chinese food, almost on principle. And, above all, people involved in this kind of ugly conflict use language differently than people engaged in constructive conflict.

The effects of ugly conflict or personality conflict are profound. First, ugly conflict creates some very powerful negative emotions on the part of the people involved. They waste considerable time and energy trying to "defeat" the other, lobbying for support, and generally being angry. Second, ugly conflicts are disruptive for the team. As these conflict play out (and they are often unresolvable because there is no central issue to resolve), the team has to suffer through wasted effort and time, particularly if other team members get pulled into the emotional firestorm, take sides, and lower their ways of communicating to the level of the people involved directly in the ugly conflict. If other team members are 
forced to be observers of such conflict, feelings of discomfort and lack of trust and security can result. After all, if George and Fred can get into these kinds of ugly things, it could happen to anyone.

Apart from your own gut feelings, you can recognize ugly conflict using the following characteristics:

conflict between the parties runs for a long time and across many issues

people have given up resolving the conflict and have moved to trying to score points, rather than problem-solve

people in the conflict focus on personal issues, such as styles, ways of talking, and personal qualities such as loyalty, rudeness.

people are often labelled.

participants look to a higher authority to "fix" the problem using power (e.g.. going to the boss to have someone fired or disciplined).

Contributors to Ugly Conflict In The Workplace

Conflicts move from "good" to ugly in a number of ways. In addition to the ways people interact, organizations as a whole "conspire" to create ugly conflict. If we look at organizations that tend to foster a great deal of ugly conflict, we find that they seem to share some or all of the following. Managers and supervisors are almost always an integral part of the problem. Most of the ugly strategies used by managers, employees, and organizations as a whole are based on the repression of conflict or by shifting the conflict issue from the a specific issue to personal issues.

Ugly #1: Nonaction

The most common repressive strategy is nonaction doing nothing. Now, sometimes, doing nothing is a smart thing to do, provided the decision to do nothing is well thought out and based on an analysis of the situation. Most of the time, people "do nothing" about conflict situations for other reasons, such as fear of bringing conflict into view, or discomfort with anger.

Unfortunately, doing nothing generally results in conflict escalating, and sets a tone for the organization..."we don't have conflict here". Everyone knows you have conflict, and if you seem oblivious, you also seem dense and out of touch.

Ugly #2: Administrative Orbiting

Administrative orbiting means keeping appeals for change or redress always "under consideration". While nonaction suggests obliviousness since it doesn't even acknowledge the problem, orbiting acknowledges the problem, but avoids dealing with it. The manager who uses orbiting will say things like "We are dealing with the problem", but the 
problem never gets addressed. Common stalls include: collecting more data, documenting performance, cancelling meetings, etc.

Ugly #3: Secrecy

A common means of avoiding conflict (or repressing it) is to be secretive. This can be done by employees and managers. The notion is that if nobody knows what you are doing, there can be little conflict. If you think about this for a moment, you will realize its absurdity. By being secretive you may delay conflict and confrontation, but when it does surface it will have far more negative emotions attached to it than would have been the case if things were more open.

Ugly #4: Law and Order

The final "ugly strategy". Normally this strategy is used by managers who mistakenly think that they can order people to not be in conflict. Using regulations, and power, the person using the approach "leans on" people to repress the outward manifestations of conflict.

Of course, this doesn't make conflict go away, it just sends it scuttling to the underground, where it will grow and increase its destructive power.


People tend to look at conflict in the workplace as being negative. In reality, we will never eliminate conflict, and if we attempt to do so, we will probably only force some of it underground. Conflict can be an effective way for everyone to grow, learn and become more productive and satisfied in the workplace.

Or, as you well know, it can make everyone miserable. That brings us back to the point of this book.

We need to look at conflict as an opportunity, being aware that a good amount of the time, conflict brings bad things, and sometimes really ugly things. The trick for organizations, and people is to do everything possible to prevent ugly conflict from occurring and to prevent small conflict from escalating in major, long term war in the workplace. We can live with some conflict. What we can't live with is conflict that is trivial, destructive, personal and wastes time.

In order to prevent destructive conflict, and to deal with it effectively we need to understand something about what conflict is about.

Conflict can occur for many reasons. It occurs when people have legitimate differences of opinion on a subject, and care about the issue at hand. It also occurs as "death by a thou 
sand blows". Sometimes two people, through the way they interact on a day-to-day basis develop a dislike of each other to the point where they will argue, debate and even insult each other at the drop of a hat. There is no one specific issue in these kinds of conflicts, and if you ask one or the other of the combatants what is going on they will probably cite a "personality conflict" or some general statement of dislike. This kind of conflict is almost always destructive to an organization, since without a clear cause, it cannot be resolved. As time goes on the behaviour of the combatants gets worse with other non-combatants drawn into the fray. After a point, the damage is so bad that it can't be fixed without moving someone, or isolating the combatants somehow, although even that doesn't always eliminate the closed door backbiting and gossip that comes with this ugly territory.

We are going to focus primarily on preventing this kind of unnecessary conflict, because it is the source of most organizational grief. And, believe it or not, it CAN be prevented to a great degree. We can be less concerned about the conflict that occurs due to legitimate differences of opinion, although we need to address how to conduct those kinds of discussions so they don't escalate into destructive personalized conflicts.


1) Conflict in the workplace is inevitable and occurs because people care about what they are doing.

2) Workplace conflict can be productive or non-productive. It can help people and teams grow, or it can retard growth, waste huge amounts of time, and make workplace life miserable. In short conflict can be "good" or it can be ugly.

3) Whether disagreement results in good or ugly outcomes depends on how the disagreements are handled and whether conflicts are necessary and important to getting things done.

Our goals regarding conflict are to:

handle disagreements so they do not become ugly ongoing conflict.

reduce or eliminate unnecessary conflict, recognizing that we can't eliminate all conflict.


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