While differences of opinion in the workplace can be
stimulating and constructive, outright conflict is not. Even small
misunderstandings can lead to the sparring partners getting the gloves on.
Advice is given on how to resolve such disputes. By Walter Brennan
Brian Johnson was stunned to discover that a letter had been written to his
manager accusing him of being impossible to work with. Brian was a successful
surgeon, and a highly talented professional who had, in his words,
"forgotten more than any of these pampered junior staff would ever
The problem now though, was that no-one would speak to him. "The
atmosphere was awful," said Brian. "We would come to work, scrub up,
operate and finish with hardly a word being said."
The situation lasted for more than two months, before a letter was sent and
he was summoned to explain the situation. Brian was advised to "get a
grip" of the situation before it became public knowledge. He still feels
the sense of betrayal, anger and hurt from this situation even two years later,
although he no longer works in the same hospital.
"Why couldn’t my colleagues have talked to me about the problems
first?" he asks. "Why did they go behind my back? Why did they try to
Conflict is a way of life. Everyone encounters it from the cradle to the
zimmer frame. A participant on a course I ran recently asked me, "Why
can’t everybody be friends?" I was uncertain whether this was a question
or simply wishful thinking.
Conflict left unresolved is damaging emotionally, organisationally and, of
course, financially. The emotional and psychological impact of conflict is
constantly rolled out: stress costs 80 million working days a year and,
according to the Confederation of British Industry, that converts to £5.3bn
So how can we eliminate conflict? Indeed, can we or should we eliminate it?
What is conflict?
The Oxford Dictionary defines conflict as, "…clash, be incompatible
with"2. Parker and Archer define it as, "A perceptual state involving
the executive function of the organism where the immediate choices in the
organism’s repertoire, together with the outcome of these choices, are seen to
involve incompatible motives and needs."3 Or as Cahn prefers,
"Difference or incompatibility between people."4
However, rather than dwell upon the semantics of increasingly clinical and
academic definitions, this article is about understanding conflict and managing
it in the workplace.
Why does conflict happen?
Maddix5 suggests that conflict is present within organisations because of:
– Differences in needs, objectives and values
– Differences in perceiving motives, words, actions and situations
– Differing expectations of outcomes – favourable versus unfavourable
– Unwillingness to work through issues, to collaborate, or to compromise
What must be remembered is the fact that conflict happens not necessarily
because party A wants to sabotage, dominate or dislike party B. Often both
parties mean well and share the same objectives. But how they achieve these
objectives can be significantly different, prompting bemusement, anxiety,
anger, frustration and resistance in others.
Conflict is unhealthy when it is not addressed or where there is a
determination that one party will "win" at the expense of the other
party. When there is unhealthy conflict, lines are metaphorically drawn and
colleagues are forced into a polarisation or an "us or them"
situation. When this happens, communication breaks down and trust and mutual
support disappear. Sadly, when there is conflict, no particular occupational
group or status is exempt from the corrosive damage.
In one case I dealt with, a fundamental breakdown in approaches to dealing
with aggressive children was sufficient for two groups of highly qualified,
mature, professional educational and clinical psychologists to cease talking,
co-operating and eventually sharing an office.
Staff member Eileen Kearns says, "It all started one day when we were
having what seemed to be a good old debate about approaches to aggressive children
in educational settings and what works best.
"Unfortunately, one of the senior staff was not present and was
basically fed information that in retrospect was inaccurate and caused him
(John) to believe that his professionalism and ultimately his integrity were
being questioned by colleagues who did not have the ‘decency’ to talk to him
John quickly changed and just stopped talking to colleagues unless he had to
and then he was curt and stuck strictly to the point. Within a fortnight, the department,
consisting of 11 staff, was divided between allies and supporters of John and
his school of thinking and those against.
Eileen, a secretary, who was not even there on the day of the discussion,
found herself being wooed and enticed into joining one group or the other.
"It was awful, I was frightened to do work for one member of staff for
fear of upsetting someone else. I was not allowed to be neutral. What had been
a great place to work was now cold and oppressive. Colleagues who had impressed
me so much with their intelligence, knowledge and professionalism were now
behaving like children, trying to get one over the other group."
I was invited to carry out a review of the organisation’s function and
basically aim to deal with the breakdown in the function of the department.
Time and resources dictated that I had six days to try to turn the situation
around. I wrote to all 11 members of staff outlining my role, brief and the
expected outcomes of the project. I also stated that I would wish to meet with
as many staff as possible.
I discovered that there was only one group of staff who were prepared to
meet with me to discuss issues around the breakdown of this previously very
All the staff who came to meet with me were those who believed that they had
been snubbed by John and his "friends" and felt that they were the
victims in the situation. One by one they talked about their initial puzzlement
and eventual resentment towards John for what was happening.
"We were now not speaking and therefore not sharing vital
information," one psychologist told me.
Based upon the information provided, which thankfully was supplied candidly
without any fear of breach of confidentiality, I was able to gain a good
picture of what had happened. Each informant chose to meet me unaccompanied by
any representative, formal or informal.
Suddenly the other group of staff expressed a wish to meet me and provided a
significantly different picture of events from the first group.
It occurred to me, as the saying goes, that there are three sides to any
story: your side, my side and the truth. I recognised I was not going to get to
the truth. I just wanted to get the staff to try and work together
professionally once more.
The next stage was to highlight the benefits of effective teamwork and,
meeting with each team separately, I facilitated a day of core values to which
employees can expect to be entitled. I also highlighted what the organisation
can expect from employees and, most importantly, what standards of conduct
should exist between employees.
I also spelt out the bottom line: how could anybody justify their behaviour
towards colleagues in the wake of a serious incident occurring due to a
breakdown in communication? I emphasised just how indefensible such a
predicament would be before a disciplinary hearing, a tribunal or, even worse,
a Coroner’s court.
Staff basically had a choice either to maintain their stance and not work
with their colleagues or to move forward and work through the differences
towards constructive team working. Those who were not prepared to move on were
also warned that there was no future for them within the organisation. They
could not remain within that organisation and maintain their behaviour.
The following week I met with John and asked him what he needed from his
colleagues for him to communicate and work with them once again. He needed to
understand why some of them had said what they had about him and to explain
I used the same approach with two members of the other group (Jane and Paul)
who had been most vociferous about John’s behaviour.
The next day I met with John and passed on to him what had been said by the
other group. I also passed on to his colleagues what he had said. This allowed
for challenges to take place in a safe, emotionally free atmosphere.
As is so common with such conflict, most of what happened was interpretation
and misinterpretation. With ground rules set, I conducted two mediation
sessions each lasting one hour. I controlled all proceedings and informed John
and Jane that if proceedings became emotional, I would terminate the session.
Not surprisingly, in my presence each now presented their case far less
stridently using terms such as "appeared", "possibly",
"perception", as opposed to "she did",
"definitely", "I know". ??These two sessions reopened the
lines of communication and misunderstanding quickly evolved into realisation
and a desire to once again work together.
Two weeks later I facilitated two teambuilding days. One was held internally
and aimed at restoring corporate values and roles within the department. The
second was at a hotel and concentrated on moving forward and developing a
number of projects aimed at highlighting good practice, celebrating success and
sharing these achievements through a number of articles, conference
presentations and finally hosting a conference later in the year.
Twelve months later, I went back to spend a day with the team. John is now
the manager and is committed to understanding the value of conflict and its
He has, through his promotion, recognised the need for self-awareness and
how his leadership style can impact positively and negatively on his
Conflict is inevitable in the human interactive process. When it causes
parties to explore new ideas, test their position, philosophy and practice, and
when it stretches the imagination, it is positive. When dealt with
constructively, conflict can impel change, yield best practice and generate a
happy fulfilling atmosphere.
Ignore it at your peril.
1. Osborn A (2000) Workplace blues leave employers in the red. Guardian, 12
2. Oxford Dictionary (1988) Oxford: Clarendon Press.
3. Parker A, Archer T (1994) The Encyclopaedia of Human Behaviour. London:
4. Cahn D (1994) The Encyclopaedia of Human Behaviour. London: Academic
5. Maddix R (2000) London: Kogan Page.
Walter Brennan BA (Hon) RMN FETC is an independent training consultant and
international speaker on workplace conflict.
For more details visit his website on: www.oliverbrennan.co.uk or e-mail [email protected]
– Would you say that overall staff within this organisation are happy?
– Are your staff happy to stay to complete a task if a job needs doing
– Do you have a problem with organisational stress and sickness levels?
– Do staff feel valued and appreciated by their supervisors/managers?
– Do you recognise the views and contributions of junior staff
indecision-making within your organisation?
– Do you have managers and staff who have been described as bullies by other
– Are you able to deal with most disputes/grievances informally and
– Do you encourage staff to express views and opinions that may conflict
with the corporate philosophy?
– Do you reward managers/supervisors who can flex their "interpersonal
muscles" (show how tough they can be) with adjectives such as "They
get things done" or, "They don’t tolerate any nonsense"?
– Do you consider staff who go off sick with stress to be
"inadequate" or "weak"?
– Do the problems of staff seem to get in the way of this organisation’s
– Could you improve the culture of this organisation and make it a better
place to work?
– How are we seen by our competitors? Are we good or bad employers?
– Do we encounter special problems retaining or attracting good staff to
– Are the senior managers seen as remote and aloof by the workforce?
– Does the workforce know who the chief executive is?
– Do most of the senior managers employed within this organisation enjoy the
trust and respect of the workforce?
– Are we committed to promoting equal opportunities for our workforce
– Would we take disciplinary action against a manager who was