Workplace Conflict - Facilitating a Peaceful Outcome


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It is worth remembering that the work environment is primarily an unconventional setting for adults. At home we may have responsibilities for bringing up children, paying mortgages, doing DIY and being good neighbours. These are all self-regulating activities and most people manage to do these without too much stress. The workplace however often requires us to leave our adult instincts at the door and adopt a ‘role-play’ approach in order to fit in with the prevailing culture. Such a setting can encourage competition which in itself can encourage the individuals within it to raise their game and perform better than they may do alone. On the other hand, this competitive ‘system’ can lead to behaviours that seem to conflict with adult best practice. When disagreements arise, the consequences can often be ugly and lead to ongoing stress and low morale amongst those involved. Below we shall look at how such a situation may arise and how a facilitated discussion might help.

Let us take an example – Joe is in charge of business development for an IT consulting firm. He has successfully negotiated a key contract to develop some software for a hedge fund company. The negotiations were difficult, considering that a competitor was also bidding for the same project. Joe is very pleased to have won the deal. A team is assembled to design and deliver the system. It is estimated to take six months and cost £200,000. There are financial penalties involved for late delivery. The project seemingly starts well but as it progresses, Kevin, the Project Manager is getting stressed and key deadlines are being overshot. Five months later, it is clear that the project is way behind schedule and the company looks likely to incur penalties. Whilst Joe had consulted with his analysts before pricing the deal, he had ignored some of their concerns about a particularly complex module of the work. The analysts couldn’t quantify how potentially complex it might be until they started the work. In the end Joe decided to ‘wing it’ by taking the most optimistic scenario, i. e. that the module would be easy to develop.

A meeting has been called by the CEO of the consulting firm to find out what has been going wrong. Joe is blaming the analysts and the project manager for not being efficient in their work. Kevin, the Project Manager is furious that Joe is questioning his ability and his integrity. He tells the CEO that Joe has set the team up for failure by incorrectly pricing the deal in order to get his commission. The CEO meanwhile is furious at the prospect of his resources being wasted and of having to pay considerable financial penalties. Clearly we have a situation of conflict. Joe is stressed because he feels that Kevin has got him into trouble with the CEO and that his team has let him down by not delivering the project on time. Kevin is stressed because he feels Joe was being dishonest in his negotiations and is trying to use him as a scapegoat.

Is this an unsolvable stalemate? Perhaps and perhaps not? It depends on how the individuals handle it from this point forward. In an ideal situation, a good facilitator, (in-house or external), would convene a meeting between Kevin and Joe. Open communication is key at this point and it is important to look at the positive intentions behind each person’s behaviour. Kevin would be asked what his positive intentions were in not communicating earlier that the project was off-track. He might say that he didn’t want to cause any concern or that he didn’t want anyone to think that he was a failure. As for Joe, he might say that he ignored the analysts concerns when pricing the deal because he was desperate to prove that he was able to win good business for the company. He was also determined to ‘beat’ his opposite number at the competitor firm, whom he had worked with before and disliked intensely. A deeper analysis would probably reveal more positive intentions for each party. The key thing about this conversation is that even though Kevin and Joe are at loggerheads, it is clear that neither of them had any intention to offend or undermine the other. Their intentions were pure given the ‘system’ that they are operating in.

The discussion could then look at the values or ‘drivers’ of each employee. If Joe were asked what was important about winning the deal he might list the following: Money, Pride, Recognition, Job Security and Success. These are the ‘drivers’ behind his intentions. Kevin on the other hand might say that it was important to him not to flag the problem earlier because he strongly values: Harmony, Determination, Pride and Teamwork. Both parties are ‘driven’ by different things (although the both value ‘Pride’). Since Kevin values Harmony, he didn’t want to cause a fuss by indicating that there might be a problem. Since Joe is driven by Money, he may do whatever it legally takes to secure it. In this type of dialogue the facilitator would encourage both parties to see how the methods they have used to meet their values might have caused collateral damage to other people. They could then explore new ways of meeting their values that may be better for the other party and the company in general.

The type of facilitated discussion outlined above is entirely realistic, even when there is animosity or conflict. It broadens the participant’s awareness of how other people have good intentions and admirable values irrespective of the outcomes of their actions. The participants can also come away with a better understanding of how they themselves think and operate. Building this type of awareness is an excellent way to foster understanding and future cooperation amongst employees.

Noel is an experienced coach with a solid corporate background that enables him to closely empathise with the issues facing his Executive Coaching London clients. Find out more at


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