How to Manage Conflict in the Workplace

Pay attention to these 10 warning signs and act decisively to avoid escalation

Posted by Dr. Pat Pitsel in Harassment, Human Resources on July 24th, 2012

Why is it that some minor disagreements can grow from a simple difference of opinion into a full-fledged, all-out battle?

Many of us have had the misfortune to work in an environment where a couple of employees seem to have a personal enmity that surpasses all understanding. In worst-case scenarios, the workplace conflict spreads, the entire office takes sides, one group pitted against the other, sometimes for reasons that are lost in time. It’s a recipe for a lawsuit, or worse.

Rumors fly, accusations are made, sabotage occurs and productivity is practically non-existent. There is an increased risk for bullying, harassment and even workplace violence.

The usual efforts are made at rectifying the situation. Meetings are held behind closed doors; there are tears and curses (women cry; men swear); a conflict resolution consultant is called in for a one day workshop to try and teach everyone how to play nicely in the sand box; turn over rises sharply; the manager leaves, but the two combatants stay on, continuing to snipe at one another and recruit new staff to their side.

This level of conflict does not suddenly appear from nowhere, overnight, in the twinkling of an eye. To get to the stage described above, everyone in the group must collude, knowingly or unknowingly and permit certain behaviours to occur without admonition, correction or coaching for improvement.

10 Signs of Conflict

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What are the warning signs, then, that a wall is being built that may forever divide two (or more) people? Here are some of the major predictors that conflict is likely to erupt.

  1. A significant difference in the makeup of staff. This difference could be centered on age (the older generation disrespects the younger folks who, in turn, don’t think that you should get respect just because you are ancient), or values, race, religion, colour, or lifestyle.
  2. Managers who are friends with some and end up spending more time with some staff than with others. Tommy Smothers had it right – “Mom always did like you best”, and sibling rivalry is alive and thriving in many offices.
  3. Role confusion where no one is quite certain who is really responsible for what.
  4. The existence of cliques and exclusionary behaviour. The same people go for coffee or lunch together and woe betide any newcomer who tries to be included.
  5. The same people always sit beside one another and sub-group with private conversations, or notes being passed during meetings.
  6. People remain silent about disagreements during meetings, but have meetings after the meeting to complain about decisions made.
  7. Disrespectful non-verbal communication during meetings – eye rolling, the “how pathetic” head shake, the “back- head-tilt-with-raised-eyebrows-how-stupid-is-that” look.
  8. Blaming and or scapegoating when something goes wrong.
  9. Rigid positions being taken during meetings or discussions with no compromise or flexibility.
  10. Staff complaining to the manager about colleagues and attempting to triangulate (demanding that the manager as a “neutral” third party resolve personal issues).

Address the Behavior

So, if you see these things occurring, what should you do next?  Remember the principle – “Bad behavior ignored does not improve”.

The conversation does not have to be confrontational, but it does have to happen.

Be Self-Aware

Watch your own non-verbal behavior – moderate your voice – remain calm (remember to breathe!). Do NOT point a finger (like a scolding parent). Ask rhetorical questions (Do you think your behavior in the meeting this morning was appropriate?).

But there is one caveat for all of this: people with severe personality disorders or mental health issues do not respond, generally, to ordinary managerial interventions. Remember, not everyone needs management; some people need therapy.


Pat Pitsel
Pat Pitsel

Psychologist, Educator and Principal of Pitsel & Associates Ltd.

Dr. Patricia Pitsel, Principal of Pitsel & Associates Ltd., is a psychologist and educator. Pat received her M.Sc.Ed. from Fordham University, New York City, and her Ph.D. from the University of Calgary.
Dr. Pitsel's enthusiasm and sense of humour have made her a frequent speaker at conferences and conventions where she has been known to keep people awake for several minutes at a time.