The ‘evilution’ of workplace conflict

Long-standing disputes can lead to entrenched negative behaviours

Janet and Kawas have worked together for three years. From the beginning, they’ve argued over their responsibilities on shared assignments, requiring their manager’s intervention each time. Their disagreements are becoming increasingly strident and their manager, Robert, is fed up.

Anne has been Karl’s manager for two years and they worked together two years before that. There is a history of conflict between them that has escalated since Anne became manager. Other staff members are aware of the dissension. Anne is very concerned about the situation.

Margaret and Lillian have shared an office space for more than one year. The ongoing conflict between them over things such as the radio volume, telephone use and chatting with other staff is having an impact on anyone within earshot. Their manager, Carol, has talked to both of them to no avail.

These types of situations are all too common in organizations and have a significant, adverse impact on morale, productivity and working relationships. What they also signify is the “evilution” of conflict — longstanding dissension. It happens when people have become entrenched in their perceptions and positions and react in destructive ways.

Longstanding conflict can be the result of many things, including an organizational culture that avoids conflict and reacts only when things escalate, staff who have no training and no incentive or support to get off the treadmill of conflict, or leaders’ lack of conflict competence.

Conflict inevitable, natural

Organizations need to acknowledge conflict is inevitable and natural and is an opportunity to build relationships, share ideas and opinions and create mutually satisfying solutions. To make such a paradigm shift, it is helpful if organizations commit to building a culture of conflict competence, by having effective conflict management skills as a core competency for all staff and providing the requisite training and coaching.

It is equally important to provide staff with easily accessible options aimed at preventing and addressing conflict. Such initiatives are ideal but not a common phenomenon. Too many organizations see these initiatives as too costly, but high instances of absenteeism, medical or stress leave and litigation can be an even higher price to pay for ill-managed conflict.

Most organizations are reactive when it comes to conflict. That means when relationships break down, it is common to use neutral third parties to mediate the issues.

Likewise, when a work unit becomes dysfunctional, team builders facilitate a process to mend matters, which can include sending problematic employees to conflict-management training or changing shifts and work locations. Unfortunately, these methods are not always durable, especially with the “evilution” of longstanding conflict. There are other options that can have a more lasting effect.

Conflict coaching

Conflict coaching is a coaching specialty where a coach helps individuals gain the skills and abilities to manage and resolve an ongoing dispute, prevent a conflict from escalating unnecessarily and improve their conflict competency. As it pertains to longstanding conflict, the latter objective is recommended.

What makes conflict coaching most helpful is the coach helps people, on a one-on-one basis, examine the many elements of conflict that preclude their effective conflict management.

Individuals explore their hot buttons and the reasons for, and impact of, their adverse responses. Coaches also help individuals gain increased insights and different perspectives on themselves and the person with whom they are in conflict. They also learn ways to shift their behaviours and interact more productively.

As part of the process, the individual is involved in the establishment of measurable goals and accountabilities.

Pre-mediation coaching

Not all staff want to engage in mediation, in which a third party facilitates a discussion among the parties. The antipathy that exists may impede the process. But if this forum is to be used, one way to facilitate mediation is to provide pre-mediation coaching.

This technique applies conflict-coaching principles to help people engage more effectively in the mediation process. However, it is important to keep in mind that mediation generally focuses more on specific issues in dispute at the time. While these matters may be resolved in mediation, the process does not usually help people identify and work on their challenges in managing conflict.

Post-mediation coaching

In the aftermath of mediation, post-mediation coaching helps parties move forward. Again, depending on the type of mediation used, there is often limited opportunity for parties to get to the root of the conflict and gain insights about their conflict conduct and their contribution to the strife. Settlement agreements are more often about what parties will and will not do with regard to their specific dispute.

This can be very helpful but it does not address behaviours destined to repeat themselves. Post-mediation coaching provides ongoing assistance to the parties and helps monitor behaviours that exacerbate conflict.

Other techniques

Other preventative techniques can include:

• conflict-management training combined with conflict coaching for all new managers;

• peer-conflict coaching, in which staff are trained to provide internal assistance to their peers;

• peer mediation, in which staff are trained to mediate or co-mediate co-worker disagreements;

• an internal or external ombudsman;

• managerial-conflict facilitation, in which managers conciliate disputes between and among their staff; and

• managerial-conflict coaching, in which managers are specifically trained to coach their workers.

Cinnie Noble is owner of CINERGY Coaching, a division of Noble Solutions, a conflict-management company. She can be reached at (416) 686-4247 or [email protected]. For more information visit

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