Conflict Management- Understanding The Process

Essential to understanding conflict management is gaining an understanding and becoming familiar with its process. This article discusses an example of a workplace conflict and the stages through which it transitions. It is every employee’s responsibility to raise awareness and report inappropriate behavior when it starts, instead of waiting until it becomes a major problem.

The example:

Employee John has recently learned that he has not been selected for an expected promotion. As a result, John shows irritability in the workplace, becomes isolated, and is seen as slightly argumentative and rude to fellow employees. Over a few days or even weeks, John’s behavior becomes increasingly unfriendly, though not yet to the point where it would be considered aggressive or violent. Although a number of his coworkers acknowledge that John has changed and is obviously upset about the decision that was made, the communication regarding his behavior has only risen to the level of “water cooler” talk. HR has not been notified at this point. Most everyone in John’s day-to-day work group continues to go about their activities, while doing their best to avoid interaction with John whenever possible.

Conflict Management – When Should It Start?

Unfortunately, most organizations fail to intervene at this stage. Employees talk amongst themselves, but not to John, and also failing to involve employees who exist to provide help in these very situations. More often than not, individuals don’t want to “rock the boat” or “snitch” on a fellow employee. Information is known prior to incidents occurring, but no one wants to get involved for fear of retaliation or concern that they will potentially hurt John’s career. No one wants to cause further aggravation, possibly believing that all John needs is “time to get over it.” However, this is not what John needs. When someone who is normally positive, happy, and enjoyable to work with suddenly or gradually becomes negative, rude, or unusually different, persons who notice should call it into question. Similar to the “see something, say something” concept. Conflict management is not only something that happens after a crisis, it is managing conflict prior to it occurring.

In the scenario, John has continued to have feelings of frustration, anger, and disappointment about the missed promotion. Additionally, he recently found out his wife is pregnant with their third child. He was counting on the promotion, as the extra money had gone from being “extra” to essential. John feels more and more pressure at home, and finds himself truly struggling to maintain a positive outlook about the future. His feelings build to the point where he is overreacting to little things and is having problems in all areas of life, not only at work.


John’s fellow employees notice his increasing hostility and argumentative nature. His behavior has escalated to where it is making it impossible for co-workers to handle his outbursts. HR and his supervisor are aware of his behavior and call him in for a meeting. John is on the defensive and fails to be asked what may be wrong, but instead is told about how his behavior is unacceptable in the workplace and his coworkers are concerned. The meeting has a punitive tone vs. a supportive effort and results in John being placed on probation with a performance improvement plan. Although this would be considered appropriate for his demonstrated behavior, HR and management failed to recognize or gain insight into the underlying issues, having only dealt with the external behavior. John leaves the meeting more agitated than when he entered. He is now fearful of losing his job completely. He also feels betrayed; angry that his coworkers failed to come to him first instead of going straight to management.

Conflict management is a tool that begins with every employee. Effective conflict resolution training teaches essential skills and techniques for employees to use early on during conflict, so they become valuable partners to HR and management prior to situations escalating out of control. In today’s workplaces, acts of violence and hostility are becoming far too common. Seeking to train a workforce to better recognize problems early on and enhance communication between coworkers is a great place to start.

The example scenario in this article can play out a number of ways. John may continue to escalate and lead him to behaving in a violent and harmful way towards others. John may turn all his anger and emotion inward and continue to spiral downward into depression, substance abuse, or similar self-harming behaviors. All of these potentially harmful scenarios are preventable. Use of an effective conflict management plan, combined with progressive and realistic crisis intervention training for employees, is part of that process.

Want more information? Contact us today and find out how our training can benefit your organization.