Conflict Handbook


Numerous elements make Prism Full Form1change in the workplace inescapable, including globalization; technological advances; diversity of gender, ethnicity, and age; changes in personnel, reporting structure, and policy; office relocation; and fierce competition in the marketplace.

Change of any kind produces stress and sparks conflicts, in part because people react to change differently. What is an invigorating challenge for some may alarm and confuse others. Still others may prefer to wait and see what happens next. Astute managers will listen carefully to all their employees to determine who might need extra help with accepting change. A steady stream of communication, through meetings, announcements, and emails, helps ensure that everyone stays fully informed. Addressing people’s individual concerns is crucial.

One of the best ways to defuse change-related conflict is to establish and then maintain an atmosphere of openness and trust. When change is in the air, people need to see that their managers continue to keep their commitments.

When change is properly handled–that is, when people are informed, respected, and listened to–it can be beneficial.


Today, most workplaces comprise people of differing ages, ethnicities, cultures, and native languages. Each generation has its own ideas of proper workplace behavior, and each culture has its own ways of showing respect. Individuals differ widely in the way they perceive the world, interpret information, read and exhibit body language, and either conform to or defy stereotypes.

Unless people admit to themselves that their own customs and standards are not universal, conflict will arise and fester. Workers at every level must learn to see things from other points of view and respond empathetically. Everyone must be able to recognize his or her own stereotypical thinking and assumptions, question them, and move on. People need to ask themselves whether they are ready to adapt and grow. In order to understand others’ stories, people must first examine their own. Only then will they be capable of the respectful conversations that transform relationships.

Respect, or recognizing another person’s worth and dignity and behaving accordingly, is paramount. Respectful behavior means viewing the other person as a human being, not just as the source of a differing opinion. It means being open to the possibility that the other person has a valid position regarding the issue at hand.

Words can mean different things to different people. Therefore, rephrasing statements and questioning for comprehension can help to ensure all parties are on the same page. People also have varying communication styles, and prioritize candor and privacy differently. Difficult conversations may go more smoothly after one party volunteers some personal information, showing vulnerability and establishing common ground. Modeling respectful behavior, openly seeking to learn about and resolve differences, communicating clearly and directly, and being ready to admit to being wrong will all foster appreciation and respect for coworkers.


A great deal of work today is accomplished through teams. The best teams are inclusive: The more diverse the team, the more viewpoints that are represented. To leverage diversity, all team members must be valued for their potential contributions, and all must have a chance to speak. Team members should be willing to mentor and be mentored as needed, and those unused to working on diverse teams must receive resources or training on inclusiveness.

Once a team is created, it needs to establish group norms, deciding questions of responsibility for meetings, record keeping, communication, roles, accountability, and conflict resolution. Successful teams then set goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely.

Sadly, most teams include at least one person who habitually generates conflict. Such troublemakers resent being asked for clarification, argue every point, and know better than anyone else how to do everything. In addition to dealing tactfully with such people, team leaders must, from the outset, establish trust. The leader must model honesty, fairness, and respect and encourage team members to act accordingly. Among other things, leaders should:

*Communicate clearly, often, and in a variety of ways.

*Get to know each team member well.

*Encourage ideas from everyone, without negativity.

*Give credit to team members for their contributions.

*Distinguish problems from people.


Identifying a problem has two prerequisites:

1.Make the conversation a dialogue, not a monologue. Doing so acknowledges that anyone on a team may be the source of a problem, including the leader, and that insights may come from anyone.

2.Keep the conversation focused on facts. It is important to ask questions that uncover the facts without attacking personalities. In a good dialogue, both parties are at ease and open to hearing the other’s point of view. They listen carefully and acknowledge each other’s statements, and ask for clarification by repeating, rephrasing, and encouraging the other to elaborate.

Being judgmental and reacting emotionally will torpedo a dialogue. Instead, each party should try to stick to reporting the facts accurately and dispassionately. When there is an imbalance in power, as in a manager/employee dialogue, the person with less power may feel anxious and defensive. Both parties must realize that they cannot control another’s emotions, but they can–and should–be prepared to state their own emotions as neutrally as possible, while acknowledging the emotions of the other.

In effective dialogue, both parties:

*Recognize their own biases and assumptions and strive to put them aside.

*Try to remain open-minded and use common sense regarding keeping the emotional temperature low.

*Try not to sound patronizing or threatening.

*Interrupt only to keep the conversation on track.

*Suggest resuming the discussion later if it is no longer productive.

*Never assume anything about the motivations of the other.


Obviously, listening skills are a key element of dialogue However, many people “listen” by thinking about what to say next. Other obstacles to good listening include a distracting setting, poor timing, conflicting and unexpressed beliefs, preconceptions and emotional baggage, cultural differences, rivalries, undefined terms, and assumptions. People should eliminate or work around whatever obstacles they can, and recognize, acknowledge, and set aside the others so that good listening can occur.

Listening is actually a three-part task. In addition to hearing the other person, it is important to allow time to process the information–to actively consider what the other person has said. Only after processing is it appropriate to respond in a way that acknowledges what has been said and leaves the door open for further communication.

The best listening is active listening, which involves providing feedback that facilitates conversation. Effective listeners provide feedback by reflecting both the reported facts (“Say more about that”) and the emotion (“That must be frustrating”). The emotional content of a message can sometimes be its most important part.

Employing good listening skills–being sincere, curious, understanding, and patient–is the most effective way to reach productive resolution.


People need to know what is expected of them at work, and it is the manager’s responsibility to tell them “early and often.” This assures that people can begin their tasks with the right goals in mind and that they stay on track. Of course, if managers expect their people to live up to expectations, then they must live up to the same standards and be aware that their employees have expectations of them.

There are two primary reasons workers fail to meet expectations: lack of motivation and lack of ability. Lack of motivation calls for employees to change their behavior. The least provocative way of addressing the problem is to point out the natural consequences. When people learn that others are counting on them and that what they do is an important part of operations, they feel respected and valued and are motivated to change their behavior. Lack of ability is the manager’s problem. Part of a manager’s job is providing the resources and training that allow employees to do their jobs. The manager must also be able to adjust his or her leadership style to match differing situations and people.

Implied expectations are impossible to meet. Managers must be clear and specific in expressing their expectations. They must also be aware of ways in which body language and tone of voice might send a message. When the nonverbal message and the verbal message conflict, people do not know how to respond.

Managers and executives are not necessarily aware of every detail of every work situation. Therefore, they must encourage employees to be unafraid of speaking out and calling attention to a problem. Leadership is every person’s responsibility.


Problem solving, like negotiation, begins with separating people from their positions. A position is the line in the sand, or the demanded result; meanwhile, what people really want or need are their interests. Focusing on position fails to address interests and sets up further conflict. Addressing interests makes resolution more likely, especially when combined with an honest effort to see the other’s point of view and stay on good terms.

Therefore, in any conflict, those involved must express their interests, that is, their relevant needs and concerns. Often this is where a conversation hits a snag: People may not have articulated their interests, even to themselves. They may need to try to distance themselves from a situation in order to see it, and their own interests, more clearly and practice expressing them dispassionately. Only then can they enter the conversation ready to consider another person’s position and recognize how the situation affects that person. Mutual understanding makes for better decisions.

Another advantage of entering into dialogue with an open mind is that it facilitates creativity. Considering any possible solutions, even the unlikeliest, often yields the best solution. As with any brainstorming session, once the ideas are on the table, participants must take a step back and agree on objective criteria by which to evaluate them–criteria such as efficiency, safety, professional standards, market value, or equal treatment. If the criteria address shared interests and standards, the chances of arriving at a fair and satisfactory resolution are greatly improved.


People approach conflict with different styles. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, and everyone is capable of using any one of the styles, depending on the situation. Recognizing people’s preferred styles, including a person’s own, can quickly defuse an emotional situation. People exhibit the following five major styles of conflict:

1.Competitors are assertive and generally uncooperative; they like argument and debate and may come across as threatening. They view conflict in terms of winners and losers. They usually consider themselves courageous, but often do not have the courage to reveal their own fear and hurt. Competing people often simply need time to vent, but are quick to respond to humor.

2.Accommodators are cooperative and unassertive, often to the point of neglecting their own interests. They succumb easily to burnout. They need to prioritize self-care and to acknowledge what they feel or fear. Managers should solicit accommodators’ input but also watch them for signs of burnout.

3.Avoiders are unassertive and uncooperative. They are often unsure of their own stance on issues and therefore will not commit. They may attract resentful, worried people who are simply reflecting back avoiders’ own unacknowledged emotions. They need to be aware of and manage their emotions and learn to see the value of conflict.

4.Compromisers are moderately assertive and moderately cooperative, occupying the middle ground between competing and accommodating. They do not avoid conflict, but do not examine issues deeply, wanting a quick fix that all parties can live with. Above all, compromisers need to learn to act on their convictions.

5.Collaborators are assertive, but also cooperative; they try for win/win solutions. They need to recognize their strengths and offer to mediate more often. The best way to manage a collaborator is to watch and learn.


Refereeing every disagreement is not in a manager’s job description. It also makes people less able to collaborate and more reliant on their managers. Instead, helping employees learn conflict management skills facilitates collaboration and creativity.

This is not to say that conflict is required in the workplace. People can and do get along, especially when managers know how to nudge employees toward creative resolutions. However, all employees must be accountable for their behaviors and able to solve most of their own problems. Of course, if the problem has legal ramifications, management must be involved.

It is important for managers to learn when to intervene and when to turn a blind eye. Sometimes trying to solve other people’s problems actually creates more turmoil. Managers must also know how to intervene. Sometimes a mediator, even an outsider, is required. The mediator does not impose a solution, but helps the parties arrive at their own. In mediation, communication serves to strengthen relationships and develop problem-solving skills.

Other, more serious conflicts may require help from an expert. But when the problem is simply a behavioral issue, coaching from a trained manager can help a person adjust his or her thinking, see the situation from another point of view, and alter his or her behavior.


The negativity of unaddressed conflict can ripple through the workplace and up to company leaders. Unresolved conflict should never be ignored. Rather, all those in an organization must constantly be aware of how their behaviors affects others.

Some kinds of misbehavior, like sexual harassment or racial discrimination, can be eliminated through laws, but other behaviors will result in friction and stress. Some people use humor to alleviate stress, but when the humor is constantly directed at one person or group, or when the jokes get personal, the behavior has escalated into verbal aggression–that is, verbal bullying. Managers must always intervene in these situations, as such behavior can lead to physical violence.

Expectations must include boundaries for conversation and contact. In addition to reducing conflict, boundaries also help people keep their private lives private. Intrusive comments can be met with a polite but dismissive reply like “I’d rather not discuss that.”

The excuse of “not meaning any harm” is not accepted in court, as harassment of any kind must be judged from the victim’s viewpoint. Though unpleasant behavior may not constitute actual harassment, it is always good to realize that people’s sensitivities differ, and to tread cautiously.

Dealing with misbehavior need not escalate into open warfare if the conversation is respectful and sticks to the facts: the objectionable behavior, its impact on the victim, and what conclusions the victim draws from the incident. The conversation should end with a request that the behavior stops.

The person who engaged in the behavior should listen carefully and neutrally, distinguish between intent and impact, ask for help in understanding the impact, express gratitude for the information, and apologize if necessary.


In addition to training their managers in conflict management, organization must create well-written policies on behavior, conflict resolution, and bullying. These policies must be made available to every employee via print, posters, emails, and conversations, should be included in the hiring process.

Most organizations have an Employee Assistance Program to help people deal with personal problems that affect their work. Employees should know that they can refer themselves to such programs, and that their managers can–and in some cases, like drug abuse, must–refer them.

A wellness program can also reduce stress-induced conflict. In addition to mindfulness practices, simple physical exercise can de-stress people. Moreover, since work schedules can produce stress, the more flexibility an organization can offer its employees (e.g., fewer hours, flextime, or telecommuting), the better.

Additional help in handling conflict includes using an outside mediator, who can facilitate discussion and help parties reach a mutually acceptable solution, and peer review panels, which have the authority to impose a decision. Panel members must be well-versed in organizational policies and embody management’s intention to be fair and provide good working conditions. Of course, mediators and panel members are ineffective without conflict resolution training.

Learning to respect others and acknowledge differences and exhibiting tolerance and respect in speech, actions, and dialogue build trust and teamwork, lower workplace stress, and allow for the kind of creativity and innovation that conflict can yield to make any organization flourish.

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