Bonita G. Para, MS, Mediator
Serving Broward, Palm Beach & Miami Dade Counties

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Workplace/Business Mediation: Conflict! What an Opportunity!

Conflict is a fact of life in most organizations! We can’t escape it and we may not want to when we think about the benefits and opportunity conflict provides. Benefits of conflict? Opportunities? If we think about conflict in this way, it becomes a welcomed signal that something within our organizational system is broken and needs our attention or that what used to work is no longer meeting the needs of the organization. Recognizing and managing conflict is sometimes hard to do, but it gives us an opportunity to do some creative thinking and correct difficult situations before they negatively impact us. (Click on "read more" below)

Here’s a simple analogy. If the car starts to make a strange noise indicating a problem in the mechanical system, most people react with concern. Some will avoid thinking or doing anything about the noise for lack of time, money to pay for the repair, or ignorance about how cars work. They may not be thinking about the inconvenience they will experience when the car eventually breaks down. Others will immediately address the problem because they recognize that the longer the problem remains, the worse it may get. They are concerned about the future. They may ask themselves, “How will we get to work, pick up the kids at daycare, or get to the grocery store if the car breaks down?”
Although arranging the car repair and finding another way to get to work for a few days may cause temporary inconvenience, we can be grateful that the noise alerted us to the underlying problem before it became too big or too costly to fix.
Grateful? A shift in thinking can require some time to accomplish. However, it might become easier to make this leap if we acknowledge that the noise, and just as often, the deafening silence in a workplace indicates an existing conflict. If not effectively dealt with, it can escalate into dispute and cost a business big time.
Conflict? Dispute? What’s the difference?
Let’s get back to the noisy car. The car had an underlying problem and the noise was the indicator that something was wrong. This is analogous to the difference between conflict and dispute. Disputes are the expression of an underlying conflict just as an unfamiliar noise made by your car is the expression of the car’s underlying, mechanical system’s problem.

Where does conflict come from and what does it look like?

Conflicts in the workplace can arise from external sources, internal structural and administrative (the hierarchy) sources, interpersonal problems and organizational change, as well as from unmet or differing expectations, conflicting interests, and poor communication. If left unresolved, conflict has a tendency to spread through and infiltrate a system or workplace. It shows itself as low morale, material sabotage, lack of or poor productivity, withholding information, absenteeism and many more variations of undesirable behavior.

Response determines the outcome

Thinking of conflict as an opportunity to benefit the organization will bring a very different response and outcome than defining it as something troubling or a threat to the organization. An organization’s response to conflict typically depends on the situation, the people involved and how important the issues are to the organization.
The greatest influence on organizational response to conflict is its culture or its attitudes, beliefs, and practices or better stated as, “this is how we do it!”. The culture will determine whether there is a “fight” or “flight” response and what methods will be used to reach the organization’s goals.
The cold, harsh reality is that those who take the “fight” approach will generally react with the goal of winning at all costs. They attempt to marginalize and disenfranchise their opponents through legal action. It becomes a zero sum game supported by an “either/or”, “win/lose” and “us versus them” mind set. They believe they are right and have the organizational resources to fight the battle. Winning or losing, many resources are exhausted in trying to win the war.
If the organization’s culture supports a “flight” reaction to conflict, they will respond by avoiding it, hiding it, or by denying or not acknowledging a problem exists. The emphasis is in trying to make the problem go away without dealing with the underlying conflict.
Under both response conditions, employees can become anxious and feel either, a little unbalanced, or crazy. They see a problem exists, and they are experiencing its effects at the same time management denies it, tries to hide it or behaves incongruently with the company’s expressed values in dealing with the problem. There is rarely an attempt to explore or understand the other side’s point of view by using interventions like collaborative problem solving or mediation. The battle, whether overt or hidden, continues to escalate the war.

Is my current response to conflict having the desired outcome?

Organizations can determine how effective their responses to conflict have been by how the solutions have impacted them. Many organizations point out the high cost of their system of conflict resolution not only in dollars, but also in possible loss of reputation and damage to important relationships both within and outside the organization.
Traditional fight or flight reactions can help you win the battle, but lose the war when the underlying conflict is not addressed. Many companies take neither approach but face the music, paying attention to the effect conflict has on their organization and concentrating on the benefits they derive from exploring and revealing what the noise or the silence is all about. As a result, and through lessons learned, organizations are first using forms of alternative dispute resolution to make their conflict resolution systems more effective in terms of cost, effectiveness and impact of outcomes. If necessary, litigation will be used as the last resort.

Reframing “Conflict” into Opportunity

So how does an organization reframe the idea or the reality of conflict into something it welcomes as an opportunity? It takes a cultural shift in attitudes, beliefs and practices related to the idea of how to most effectively manage and resolve organizational conflict. This shift is not an easy thing to accomplish, as it may fly in the face of what we believe and value. It requires educating ourselves about alternatives to traditional forms of dispute resolution like litigation and accepting that there may be other, less costly ways to approach conflict.
Conflict and the ensuing disputes are expressions of unmet or competing goals and interests, scarce resources, and loss of identity. Systematically uncovering, revealing and exploring the conflict will expose the cause and provide your organization an opportunity to benefit from the knowledge gained and lessons learned. It is just another way of thinking about conflict resolution.
Many companies are losing valuable employees and clients, while exposing themselves to public criticism and possible loss of reputation as they engage in expensive battles that don’t really address the underlying cause of the war they are waging. Recognizing that fight or flight approaches to resolving conflict have too many costs, there is a movement among large corporations and small businesses to redesign their approach to conflict resolution and use mediation as a tool. Mediation is timely, cost effective and allows all parties to be part of the decision making process in resolving conflict. It is understood that change is hard, but has its rewards, if you can win the war without the battle. Conflict, what an opportunity!


  1. How does an employee who feels upset with his or her bosses bring up the fact that there are policies and prodecures that are upsetting? Does the employee "grin and bear it" or try to make change.

  2. First of all, you know that there are many kinds of employers. There are those who welcome the discussion and those who don't. The policies and procedures of a workplace are the foundation of how a business functions and put in place to provide optimum operation. Policy and procedures ensure how the business will be run and also are in place to protect the business both financially and legally. I am sure that other readers will have other good reasons to add for the placement of policy and procedure. Additionally, policy and procedure will reflect the values of the organization. If an employee is upset about a policy or a procedure, they should gather the information needed to understand its necessity. I also suggest that the employee evaluate their own stance on the subject and try to understand their own concern, before approaching management. Ask yourself if this is about your own anger or about a bigger picture.

    When approaching management remember to check your emotions at the door and come from an educated position. Be open to learn something from their point of view. Keep an open mind and listen to what they have to say. Be sure you are ready to take a learning stance before you walk in the door. Rather than attack the policy or procedure that your manager or boss has to support, ask them to explain its function. If you have an idea that is counter to their explanation, present it as an idea that would improve the policy or procedure rather than attacking it. In presenting your point of view, act like you have a great idea that will help your workplace rather than start a war and create defensiveness which will become a barrier to change.

  3. What if the conflict is so underlying that organizations feel it is something that be ignored and it will go away. How can an employee in a lead management position act as a whistle blower in order to point out the conflict and resolve it without being seen as a person that looks for problems.

  4. JR,
    This is a complex question with no easy answer. When upper management "ignores" deeply rooted conflict it might be part of the organizational culture, meaning that it is normal to ignore or not address conflict regardless of how it impacts the organization. Organizations do this for a variety of reasons too complicated to discuss in this forum. Also,for reasons unbeknownst to you, they may not want to address it or have anyone point it out to them.

    As an employee ask yourself if it is up to you to take on a problem that the bosses should be addressing. Also, you have not indicated what type of conflict it is. Is it in your job description to tackle this kind of conflict? If you get involved, could it be detrimental to keeping your job? Is the conflict ethics based, criminal, beyond what is acceptable to you in the workplace?

    A whistleblower is not necessarily seen as a person who looks for problems, but who could be seen as a problem by management not wanting to reveal the conflict or deal with it.

    It only makes sense to educate yourself fully about the situation, take your emotions out of it and decide what impact it could have on you if you get involved.