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Conflict and Power Struggle in the Workplace

Preventing Conflicts
Studying Conflict
Preventing Conflicts
Power Struggle
Power Struggle in Relationships
FAQ in Power Struggle
Beautiful Us


Leadership in Action Series

Dealing with Conflict:  Seven Tips for Keeping the Peace

B y Daniel Robin

If you happen to notice yourself getting dug in or upset in the face of differing views, ask for a time out and step out of the content for a moment.  Take a breath.  Check to see if you are presently moving toward your true goal. If not, or if the situation is just getting too uncomfortable, perhaps one of the seven strategies would be helpful in turning your conflict into collaboration.

1.   Define what the conflict is about. Studies on spousal disputes showed that about 75% of the time, partners are fighting about different issues. Ask the other person "What’s the issue?" then "What’s your concern here?" or "What do you feel we are fighting about?" Eventually ask "What do you want to accomplish?" and "How can we work this out?"

2.   It’s not you versus me; it’s you and me versus the problem. The problem is the problem. It’s stupid to try to defeat the other side, because after losing, the first thing the other side thinks is I need a rematch (and I’ll come back with more firepower so I can win this time). If we win at the other person’s expense, we also pay a price in the long run. We have a world of rematches of rematches of rematches. Don’t bring your adversaries to their knees, bring them to the table.

3.   Identify your shared concerns against your one shared separation. Deal with the conflict from where the relationship is strongest (where you agree), not weakest. It’s easier and thus more likely to be effective if you move from areas of agreement to areas of disagreement, than the other way around. Find common ground by meeting the other person where they are. Acknowledge their viewpoint. Stand on this common ground as a stronger platform from which to work out respective differences.

4.   Sort out interpretations from facts. Never ask people who have been in a fight what happened. You’ll get their interpretation, their opinion, their version of what occurred. Instead ask, "What did you do or say?" Then you get perceptions that are much closer to facts, not merely opinions. Facts help clarify perceptions, which is basic to conflict dissolution.

5.   Develop a sense of forgiveness. Reconciliation is impossible without it. Many people are willing to bury the hatchet, but they insist on remembering exactly where they buried it — in case they need it for the next battle. Let it go completely (or decide when you will). A brilliant definition of forgiveness: "giving up all hope for a better past."

6.   Learn to listen actively. Turn it around, from "when I talk, people listen to me," to "when I listen, people talk to me." Habit Five in Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." Take time to backtrack and verify what you hear. Listen with the intent to understand; not with the intent to respond. Take the first step toward reconciliation by being willing to listen with the intention to understand, and by being willing to listen first. This unblocks the logjam of right/wrong thinking, of ego and power struggle, of compassion over fear.

7.   Purify your intentions, purify your heart. You can’t get conflict and violence out of other people without first getting it out of your own soul. We can’t eliminate the weapons of the world without first getting them out of our own hearts. Consider what you really want and find the place inside you that can lead you to it. Peace begins at home. Peace begins with you.




Handling Conflict in the Workplace Constructively

By: Beverly Smallwood

Conflict is a natural part of any team or relationship. It can be healthy or unhealthy for the relationship, depending on how it is handled. When conflict is handled constructively, it promotes growth and problem solving.

The body builder knows that resistance actually grows and strengthens muscles. Resistance can have the same effect on teams. In teams, that resistance comes from the natural and necessary differences in such areas as background, training, personality style, values, pace, or priority. Blended together, these differences can create a balanced team represented by all perspectives.

On the other hand, when differences are judged or stereotyped by team members, the assets potentially gained from diversity become liabilities. Resolving differences constructively is a key team leadership skill.

As people live and work together every day, they bring their histories... their past experiences, their family and social influences, and their work experiences. From all of these sources, they've formed attitudes and beliefs, which get played out on the workplace stage every day.

Some common areas of conflict are:

1. Preferred methods
Some people think that "my way is the right way." Even those who are not so rigid often secretly harbor the belief that they have learned the most efficient and effective ways to do things, and that others should really listen to them. The fact is, there are many right ways to get to a desired outcome.

2. Sharing of resources
In today's environment where people are being asked to do more with less, there is often conflict over people, budgets, tools of technology, and even supplies. When the resources are limited, conflict is often a by-product.

3. Priorities
Various people in the workplace are responsible for accomplishing their job tasks, and they are often on different timetables than those around them. Often people mistakenly think that others should share their priorities.

4. Personality style differences
People have different personality and social styles, all of which are important for effective teamwork. However, even good intentions often cannot prevent the misunderstandings that can occur between people who think differently, approach tasks differently, and communicate differently.

5. Power struggles
The underlying need for control and power is at the root of many conflicts in the workplace. Who will have what information? Whose work area is the most spacious or prestigious? Whose opinion counts most in the final solution? These are fertile fields for conflict.

6. Values
Underlying every serious conflict is a value struggle. People in the workplace judge their own behavior as well as those of others by what they believe should be done, by the values that they hold. The lack of trust runs most deeply when the individuals involved perceive that the others involved come from an opposing system of values.

Recognizing these sources of conflict in the workplace is the first step toward being able to do something about them. Constructive discussion of these differences can build bridges over which ongoing dialog and work can freely pass.

Conflict Prevention and Resolution In the Context of Good Governance

If one looks at the sources of conflict that form the bases of present-day concerns as well as those projected in the medium-term, good governance systems and methods will have to focus upon four critical areas. These four areas overlap in many respects. Nevertheless, each reflects a body of work that will guide this portion of the survey:

  • deep-rooted conflict – combines the issue of identity with that of inequality, as discussed in Section 2/[1]/a. To that extent, it incorporates aspects of power inequalities and ethnicity. However, the reason for maintaining "deep-rooted conflict" as a category separate from the others has to do with what are often the historic and emotionally charged dimensions of the cause of conflict
  • power inequalities and asymmetries – can be deep-rooted or – at least in terms of rectifying certain sorts of imbalances – amenable to relatively quick change. The term, as suggested in Section 2/[1]/b, can incorporate the sources of long-term as well as short-term economic inequality to asymmetries stemming from gender, race, religion, etc.
  • ethnic conflict – sources of ethnic conflict, as described in Section 2/[1]/c can be "deep-rooted", a reflection of a wide range of power inequalities as well as a direct or indirect consequence of state collapse or regional power shifts. In any event, it is an area well reflected in the conflict literature, and one which poses perhaps the greatest challenge for governance and
  • multicentrism in a fragmented world – the prospect that conventional state authority will weaken dramatically and that the sources and centres of influence will be fragmented and disjointed suggests, as discussed in Section 2/[1]/g, that new forms of governance will have to be considered to meet the demands of a more turbulent world.

Yet, before embarking upon a review of the governance-conflict related literature that pertains to these four themes, there are two abiding issues that deserve consideration. The first concerns the inter-relationship between governance, conflict management, conflict resolution and process. The second concerns what might be called governance-conflict related sequencing, viz, the conceptual and practical distinction between forms of governance in pre-conflict situations as well as during and in the aftermath of conflict.


[1]Governance, Conflict-Management or Conflict Resolution

The relatively young but nevertheless intense history of conflict studies poses a quandary for all who seek to pursue it. Is one of the fundamental purposes of conflict analysis to find ways to manage conflict or to resolve it? To a great extent, the turbulent events of the 1960s led a growing number of scholars to question the whole premise of "conflict management". Conflict management was synonymous with the "diplomatic art" designed to avoid, by-pass, suppress or temporarily deal with conflict situations. It did not, however, address the very causes of conflict, nor was it regarded as leading to permanent resolution of conflict. Blainey, Burton, Deutsch and Hoglund were all very cognisant of this "diplomatic failing".

Nevertheless, despite the growing doubts about the value of merely managing conflict, some important works emerged that reflected ways that organisations could effectively come to grips with the immediate problems of diverting violence and upheaval. Pirage’s Managing Political Conflict, though not regarded as a strong work, at least outlines ways that institutions can respond to potential conflict. Thomas and Bennis’s reader, while mainly concerned with conflict within organisations, also is important for the links that it makes between structures and conflict management. Both Nordlinger as well as Nardin are interesting for another light that they shed on the relationship between organisations and conflict, namely, that governments are not merely "conflict managers" but also parties to domestic conflict.

In any event, conflict resolution was the ultimate objective, according to Coser in 1970. One needed to move beyond avoiding or suppressing conflict, and into the realm of dealing with the very causes of conflict. The inter-relationship between organisational structures, more often than the structures of government, and conflict resolution began to rapidly emerge from the 1970s onwards. Sherif’s conception of "super-ordinate goals", Nye’s Peace in Parts, Mouton’s analysis of conflict in industry as well as that of Douglas reflect the determination to relate the ways that organisations function to the ways that conflict can be resolved.

For a period of time, the case for greater attention to conflict resolution rather than conflict management seemed not only logical, but even took on a mantle of great moral merit. However, the complexities of an emerging number of crises – from Cyprus to Lebanon, from the Korean peninsula to Honduras and Nicaragua – increasingly reflected the complexities that resolution, per se, entailed. Conflict management as part of a process towards conflict resolution became an emerging spectre in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Azar, Anstey, Fisher and Lederach represent a growing number of scholars who regarded conflict management as a partial – and acceptable – step towards resolution.

Harris and Reilly make the point using a medical analogue: "…Any doctor

will rightly argue that treating symptoms is a vital humanitarian act, bringing short-term relief of suffering. A negotiation process that fails abysmally in its attempt to design a long-term settlement, but achieves a six month cease fire, has saved many lives." While there are those who see dangers in the use of such short-term bandages [eg, "perpetuating an injustice"], the key is in the concept of "process". The relationship between governance and process is that conflict resolution and prevention need not be linked initially to specific systems and structures but towards a process by which the cause of conflict can be resolved as the structures of governance can evolve.

The process might begin with an acceptance by an official body that there actually may be a problem within the state between different ethnic groups or with the resource allocation procedures of the state, itself. Esman in Ethnic Politics suggests how the very acknowledgement of grievances that might cause conflict is already a major public policy step in the right direction. The point is that governance structures or systems have to be able or willing to begin the process. Often the answer to such vexing problems is not to specify solutions in constitutional or institutional terms, but rather to acknowledge that the problem exists in the first instance.

To that extent, conflict management and process inter-relate. The former may be used by bodies trying to prevent and resolve conflict as intermediate steps towards a longer-term process that can result in conflict resolution. In this regard, Leftwich’s comment that it is not the system of government that matters nor is it a state’s technical and administrative arrangements which determine capability and competence. Rather what matters is what earlier was referred to as "the centrality of politics."


[2]Governance and Conflict-Related Phases

To what extent does one need different forms of governance to deal with different phases of conflict prevention or conflict resolution? In other words, are there governance systems and structures that are more appropriate and suitable to deal with pre-crisis situations than with conflict or post-conflict situations? On the whole, there is little distinction made in the literature between types of governance and levels or stages of conflict. That by no means suggests that the pressures on governance systems and structures are the same in pre-conflict stages as they are during conflict or post-conflict phases. The lack of such a distinction could on the other hand suggest that, while there are different technical and tactical issues raised in different phases of potential or actual conflict, the broad systemic or strategic choices about appropriate governance are not affected.

In the wake of the Rwandan genocide, the fragmentation of the former Yugoslavia and a host of other fundamental state transformations, there has emerged an extensive literature on "post-conflict recovery". Of crucial importance in many of these works is the type of governance structures and systems that should develop in the aftermath of what often has been horrific intra-state violence.

The post-conflict orientation and the attention given to post-conflict forms of governance are both understandable and important. If a society has to rebuild after suffering the trauma and destruction of lives, infrastructure and property, one critical factor for recovery will be the authority through which international aid as well as local resources will be managed. In addition, a focal point will be needed to initiate, implement and monitor such post-conflict activities as demobilisation, restoration of basic services, reintegration and re-development planning.

To that extent, post-conflict recovery creates a special set of governance and conflict-related issues. These issues in a very basic sense are technical and tactical. Patricia Weiss Fagen has identified a number of works that reflect the particular problems and circumstances that governments as well as civic society face in conflict’s aftermath. Perhaps two of the most intractable problems that post-conflict governments must face are those of demobilisation and public security, subjects on which both UNDP and the World Bank have expended considerable effort and resources. These problems are compounded by the ways that post-conflict governments as well as other civil and community groups relate to the military. As Nicole Ball and others have noted, this relationship becomes a critical factor in the evolution of governance systems and governments’ relations to populations at large.

The relationship between the military, structures of government and governance also often impact directly or indirectly upon police and security forces, human rights and judicial and legal systems as well. Equally as important are the particular economic circumstances that bedevil governments in the aftermath of violent conflict. As Weiss Fagen notes, "A necessary first step to generating post-economic recovery is to understand and be able to calculate the cost of war, in terms of human resources and property", and, in this regard, she refers to Frances Stewart’s article on "War and Underdevelopment: Can Economic Analysis Help Reduce the Costs."

Yet, while such specific post-conflict problems are so much a part of the reality of a growing number of states, the approach taken in this survey is that such problems are part of a sub-set of a broader set of issues. In other words, deep-rooted conflict, power imbalances, ethnicity and eventually multicentrism are constants to which systems and structures of governance must relate at any point in the cycle of violence, ie, prevention, mitigation, resolution.

While technical and tactical facets of pre-conflict, conflict and post-conflict situations may require different approaches at different times, what is needed from a governance perspective to prevent or resolve conflicts remains relatively consistent at any stage. Hence, this survey does not distinguish between phases of conflict and types of governance required. It assumes that "good governance" relates to all conflict phases, or, conversely, that good governance effectively avoids or mitigates the sorts of situations that create or perpetuate conflict.

That said, there is no doubt that "good governance" or appropriate systems and structures would be sensitive to the types of techniques that would address various conflict phases. Here, however, the issue is one of a sequence of appropriate conflict resolution or prevention techniques, and not one of a sequence of appropriate governance systems and structures.

[3]Governance and Four Key Areas of Conflict

The literature that relates to governance and conflict prevention or resolution in the final analysis focuses upon the four areas noted above: [i] deep-rooted conflict [ii] power inequalities and asymmetries [iii] ethnicity and [iv] multicentricity. Each of these factors tests the capacity of governance systems and structures to reconcile contending societal interests, and each in combination or individually explain why some government systems have worked [ie, avoided or resolved conflict] and why others have fomented or been unable to avoid conflict.

[a] Deep-rooted conflict.

There are few exceptions to the general assumption that democratic governance is the single most appropriate cornerstone upon which to build a system of conflict prevention or resolution. In part this conclusion is based upon the assumption that democracy "is a system by which conflicts in a society are allowed to formulate, find expression and be managed in a sustainable way, via institutional outlets such as political parties and representative parliaments, rather than being suppressed or ignored."

This assumption is particularly relevant when addressing the forces of deep-rooted conflict. There needs to be a system in which the accumulated resentments that arise from perceived misallocation of resources, be it land rights or rights to mineral resources, discrimination on the basis of gender, religion or race as well as the other myriad sources of deeply felt grievances can be aired. In the context of deep-rooted conflict, democratic institutions are more relevant for their potential ability to initiate a process for conflict prevention or resolution than for actually resolving conflicts, per se.

At the core of initiating a democratically based process that will address deep-rooted conflict are the issues of forms of representation, power-sharing and ultimately structure. To a very significant extent, such issues bring out the strengths and weaknesses of various governance concepts noted earlier in Section III/[1]a-c, under the Conceptual Parameters of the Art of Governance. For example, if the process of managing deep-rooted conflict is so dependent upon mechanisms to articulate profoundly felt grievances, should this be through consociational or integrative structures? And, to what extent do the structural consequences of certain types of governance institutions perpetuate deeply felt grievances?

Two examples taken from recent works which inter-relate governance and conflict resolution/prevention suggest that there are various power sharing and institutional options available. However, both also demonstrate that in the final analysis appropriate choice is dependent upon the characteristics, peoples, history and desires of those engaged in the conflict resolution/prevention process:

Approaches to Power Sharing

Consociational Integrative


Elites co-operate after elections to form multiethnic coalitions and manage conflicts, groups are autonomous, minorities are protected

Parties encouraged to create coalitions before elections, creating broadly inclusive but majoritarian governments


Broad-based or "grand "coalitions", minority veto, proportionality in allocation of civil service positions and public funds, group autonomy

Dispersion and devolution of power, promotion of intraethnic competition, inducements for interethnic cooperation, policies to encourage alternative social alignments, managed distribution of resources

Institutions and practices to promote these principles and effects

Parliamentary government, proportional reservation of seats, proportional representation electoral system

Federalism, vote pooling, electoral systems, presidents elected by "supermajority"

Strengths of the approach

Provides group firm guarantees for the protection of their interests

Provides politicians with incentives for moderation – "coalitions of commitment"


"Coalitions of convenience", elites may pursue conflict rather than try to reduce it, communal groups may not defer to their leaders, system relies on constraints against immoderate policies

Lack of whole-country empirical examples of working systems, assumptions that politicians respond to incentives and citizens will vote for parties not based on their own group

 Constituting An Executive Government

Parliamentary Presidential Semi-Presidential


  • Inclusiveness [can include all groups within the executive
  • Flexibility [parliamentary coalitions can change without recourse to elections
  • Checks and balances [executive is dependent upon the confidence of the legislature]
  • Empirically associated with democratic persistence
  • Can be a unifying national figure
  • Highly accountable and identifiable to voters
  • Greater degree of choice for voters
  • Stability and continuity of policy-making
  • Can combine advantages of both presidentialism and parliamentarianism
  • "Mutual consensus" requirement


  • Possibility of executive deadlocks, stalemates and immobilism
  • Problems of accountability as decisions are taken by the collective cabinet
  • Lack of governing stability
  • Centralisation of authority in one person
  • Inherently majoritarian and exclusive
  • Empirically associated with democratic failure
  • Dangers of deadlock between president and parliament
  • Divisions of governing power can be unclear


The alternative forms of power-sharing arrangements and government structures laid out in the examples above already presume agreement on participation in negotiations or discussions on participating in elections. This introduces a whole spectrum of related issues, such as the question of representatives, the dilemma of divided parties, the dilemma of power-imbalances and even ways to approach and initiate talks with party representatives. It also presumes that one is agreed on the forms of elections that will take place.

Regarding the often inter-related issues of initial representation, divided parties, power-sharing and ways to initiate negotiations, there is a wide array of works that reflect for the most part the results of practical, "real life" steps towards developing governance structures that can resolve or prevent conflict stemming from deep-rooted grievances. A few examples will suggest the breadth of the available literature.

[b] Power Inequalities and Asymmetries.

As with deep-rooted conflict, the governance options for addressing power inequalities and asymmetries are very similar. The reason is clearly that in so many respects deeply-held grievances that result in deep-rooted conflict are often the result of structural power imbalances. They are asymmetries that are assumed and built into systems that usurp and dominate the rights and access of the "unequal".

That said, it nevertheless is worth focussing upon power inequalities and asymmetries because there is an important literature that has sought to bring some of the more blatant – if not universal – examples of power inequalities into the realm of promoting good governance. Gender is the mainstay of this sort of analysis. In that regard, it is interesting that race and religion, seemingly two of the most blatant reflections of potential societal asymmetries, rarely emerge in the governance context.

James’s study on the Haitian revolution as well as his work on the "sports/war intertext" introduce the theme of race in the context of potential conflict and governance in a more Marxist sense. Similarly, Rodney and Sivanandan introduce race as a category of power inequality along Marxist lines. However, there is no literature that inter-relates governance and power inequalities with the same depth as that involved in gender symmetries. One reason for this may be because "ethnicity" now subsumes religious as well as racial categories. In that context, it is interesting to note that McGarry and O’Leary as editors of The Politics of Ethnic Conflict Regulation incorporate various sorts of religious conflict in India, the former Yugoslavia and in Northern Ireland under the rubric of "ethnicity".

Gender inequality, while never seeming to have been the source of conflict in modern history, at least serves as a possible platform or test case for governance approaches to offset other sorts of power inequalities. Gasa’s view, though, is even more limited than that. He feels that gender inequalities should be addressed as a bi-product of addressing far more fundamental asymmetries, an opportunity for good governance to deal not only with conflict but also injustice.

Yet, there are perhaps more important lessons to be learned from the literature that links governance with the power inequality of gender. One such lesson is that, as in all situations of power inequality, the key is to have the issue, the asymmetry, itself, recognised. To what extent can focal points be established within institutions that can keep injustices, such as gender and other inequalities, on the agenda? In what ways can non-governmental structures effectively promote anti-discrimination or related measures that offset power inequalities, and what sort of government system will be responsive to such special pleadings?

[c] Ethnic Conflict and Governance.

Perhaps the single most important difference between groups that are unempowered or hold deeply held grievances and ethnic groupings, is that the latter for the most part seek to break away from the state or at least the form of state governance to which that ethnic group is tied. Unless governance structures can reconcile what Shehadi has called "the drive towards ethnic-national self-determination", the ultimate objective of ethnic groups in conflict is to change the basis of their relations with the state or states.

Such ethnic determination poses a host of complex issues for governments and governance structures. Governments that ignore even the most radical demands of a states’ ethnic minorities are in danger of losing their legitimacy. Thus, the literature concerned with ethnicity and governance more often than not is concerned with ways either to meet the demands of ethnic groupings through major public policy initiatives, accede to certain kinds of territorial arrangements or alter constitutional structures in ways that will satisfy the self-identity objectives of the ethnic grouping.

Sisk maintains that when it comes to meeting the demands of ethnic groupings through a public policy process, "the answer to such vexing problems is not to specify their solution in constitutional terms, but to set up new institutions and procedures to which all groups can subscribe." One such way is to ensure that an all encompassing human rights agenda is established with institutional force to promote compliance. This has been seen by several analysts as an acceptable basis for dealing directly with certain kinds of ethnic demands.

Ethnic demands can also be met through territorial concessions. In some respects, the recent peaceful separation of Czechoslovakia into two distinct entities reflects what might be regarded as a most positive though extreme approach for dealing with ethnic territorial/constitutional demands. Confederal or polycommunal federal arrangements can be created, leaving ethnic groups with their own territory but within a larger state construct. It has benefits, according to Duchacek, as well as serious drawbacks, according to Hermans. A key variable for governments willing to take the longer term view is the extent to which such semi-autonomous territorial concessions can be linked with other parts of the state through functional, eg, trade, economic and infrastructural, relations.

The sorts of constitutional issues that need to be addressed to deal with the threat or resolution of ethnic conflict include many of the issues noted in the chart on Approaches to Power-Sharing, above. However, within those structures decisions about law and adjudication, education and language as well as security issues and "international relations" will all have to be agreed under the heading of "constitutional issues", particularly within a confederal or polycommunal federal system.

[d] Multicentrism in a fragmented world.

The nature of violence and conflict in certain respects may be changing, in other respects becoming more intense. At the same time, the relevance of present models of government and governance for the future is being increasingly subject to scrutiny and in many instances undergoing very fundamental re-evaluation. The issue, as Simai stresses in The Future of Global Governance, is that there is very little certainty about the consequence of major transformations upon the global system and their impact upon present state systems and structures, let alone their effect upon the burgeoning population that all anticipate.

The speculation about the consequence of change proceeds mainly from the area of technology driven economic globalisation. Hopkins and Wallerstein have mapped out potential broad social consequences of economic change up through 2025, and Kennedy has in a fairly linear sort of way suggested what might be, as the world steps over the millennial boundary. Chatham House has taken a very practical look at economic globalisation with something less than cosmic vision, but nevertheless Chatham House provides a very sound practical picture of the sorts of policy fragmentation to which Rosenau alludes from his more global perspective.

Duffield has paid considerable attention to "post-modern conflict" and its impact upon warlords, "post-adjustment states" and private protection. He, like an increasing number of people, concludes that the "changing competence of the nation-state, especially the emergence of non-state centres of authority, is an important feature of post-modern conflict." For organisations that are concerned about governance, particularly of a liberal-democratic kind, and conflict, his analysis is particularly apposite:

In both the North and the South, new supranational, international and local actors have qualified this competence. While both northern and southern rulers face this problem, the opportunities open to each differ. The former have increasingly formed competitive states and entered into de jure or de facto transnational regional arrangements in an attempt to retain and expand the formal economy. Southern rulers have also used the opportunities of globalisation to rework political authority by forming new external and internal alliances. In contrast to regional integration, however, illiberal processes of political exclusion, including ethnic or religious particularism, are more prevalent. Rather than curb such trends, democratisation has frequently contributed to this development.


Improve Your Ability to Handle Workplace Conflict:

An Interview with Judy Ringer

Recently our local newspaper interviewed me on the subjects of workplace conflict, difficult people, and how to manage them more effectively.


Q. What are some typical breakdowns in the workplace?

JR: I wouldn’t call them breakdowns, but conflicts. A typical conflict is what is sometimes called “triangulation.” One person is upset with their coworker, and instead of speaking with the co-worker about their concern, they talk to someone else about it or many others about it. Office gossip starts this way. Different work styles, misunderstanding of roles, jumping to conclusions – these are all ways that conflicts get started.


Q. Why do people keep falling into the same traps in the workplace?

JR: Our training is insufficient. We’ve been trained to deal with conflict in ways that are not useful. A typical myth about conflict is that it is negative. And so we see people around us either avoiding it or acting out their feelings. The triangulation example demonstrates this myth. I’m afraid to speak directly to

you about a conflict, but I will talk to others about it. And so the problem doesn’t go away. In fact it often gets worse. We keep falling into these traps because we see others doing it that way. In spite of the fact that it doesn’t work, it’s what we know so we keep doing it, hoping for a different result. Of course

that doesn’t work, and we keep having the same conflicts.


Q. Please give some examples of disrespectful behavior.

JR: This is an important question. It helps to understand that behavior that appears disrespectful to me may not appear the same to you. Did she mean to be disrespectful? Or is she just tired this morning? Or shy? Or preoccupied? (The list goes on.) On the other hand, ignoring a new supervisor’s request to perform a task differently can show disrespect, especially if you don’t communicate about it. Eye rolling, sighing, clicking your tongue, giggling conspiratorially with another coworker – these often show a

willing disrespect.

Sometimes we don’t know we’re being disrespectful. It’s important that new employees understand the work culture and what does and does not constitute disrespect. Social skills are learned. One of the supervisor’s jobs is to help employees understand when their actions are perceived as disrespectful and to give them alternatives. A good supervisor is a good teacher.


Q. How do I know if my boss is a tormentor or a teacher?

JR: Ha! That’s up to you. You decide. You have that power. Our most difficult situations, coworkers, and bosses can turn out to be teachers if we choose to learn something about why we react to them. What would it take to change my attitude from making a judgment about them to being curious about them, or being curious about my reaction to their behavior?

And I don’t mean to say that the boss is necessarily right or that his behavior is beyond reproach. What I mean is that I have to make some choices about how to handle what’s coming at me from this person. I could talk to him about the impact his behavior is having on me, the team, and our ability to get the job done. Or I could complain to others. Do I have the awareness and skill to notice my resistance, check out which of my buttons are being pushed, and make a wise decision about how to proceed? Maybe I find that if I change slightly I can regain some confidence and equanimity and be able to handle the situation more effectively. This is how a tormentor becomes a teacher. As I learn about myself I begin to have new options.


Q. How can an employee create a win-win situation with a tormentor?

JR: You begin by being curious. What would make a reasonable, rational person behave this way? The answer is usually something you can identify with. For example, an authoritarian boss usually has values around perfection, looking good, being in control, and getting the job done correctly. I certainly can identify with these intentions. The way the boss acts out the intention may be rough. But now you have the basis for a conversation. You’re entering in a more positive way, and you can talk about commonalities. Another way to create win-win solutions is by asking useful questions of the other person.

What is important to them in this conflict? What would they like the outcome to be? One of the best questions I ever raised in a conflict was to ask the other person what caused them to be so upset with me, and what I might have done differently. She was happy to tell me. I learned a lot.


Q. Are employers becoming more aware of what it takes to build an

effective team?

JR: Yes, I think in general – in and out of the workplace – we’re becoming more aware of the need and the skills to create stronger relationships, and employers are asking employees to step up and practice them.


Q. Was there a specific event in the 1980s that drew you to this line of

work? What business were you in before?

JR: Not a specific event, but a general feeling that life at work could and should be easier, more fun, and more personally rewarding. We spend too much of our time at work to have it be painful. At the time I was the co-owner of a real estate company, and I wanted our workplace to be an environment where workers and customers felt happy to be there and where there was an open flow of dialogue – a learning environment. A place that would make me wake up wanting to go to work in the morning. How could we jointly create a place where we could communicate about misunderstandings and miscommunications?

How could we have fun working together and serving our customers.


Q. How has the training profession changed in the past 10 years? Where

do you see it headed?

JR: Generally, people are becoming more aware of the importance of learning how to handle communication, conflict and relationships. I think of myself as a trainer, facilitator, communication coach, and helper. I don’t see myself going in and telling people what to do. I like to find out what they need. Where is the struggle, and how can I help to facilitate the learning. I think, generally, the profession is going there, too. And I can only speak for myself.


Q. Your Web site says that you have worked with the National Institutes of Health, Maine Medical Center, York Hospital, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, The American Red Cross, The National Education Association, and the States of New Hampshire and Vermont. What issues do large

businesses typically face?

JR: The same ones that small businesses face, and the same ones we face in our personal relationships: How do I have the conversation I need to have? How do I manage myself in order to be most effective? How do I continue to direct my energy toward a positive outcome?

Goals might be different – a more cohesive team, a strategy to work though a difficult merger or acquisition, or the answer to a persistent client complaint. And yet it always comes down to social interaction, doesn’t it? In order to solve the problem, I have to manage my reactions, decide what to do about them, and perhaps talk to you about them. If I think I don’t like you there’s a barrier that makes communication difficult. So I need to figure it out.


Q. What are some tips to handle strong emotions in the workplace?

JR: Begin by acknowledging the emotions. Take a minute and take stock of your own emotions. Name them. Are you angry, sad, happy, surprised, disappointed? Usually there are many emotions happening simultaneously. Acknowledge as many as you can. Next, identify the underlying causes. Often there’s a story connected to the emotion that’s causing you to react but has nothing to do with the current event. If you can identify the story (usually an old, familiar one), you can bring some awareness to the situation. The awareness tells you how much of the emotion has to do with the current event and how much of it is from the past event. Once you know, you can choose how to utilize the energy. For example, with a huge emotion, you might be tempted to hide it or to act it out on the other person. When you get a sense about why the event is so charged, you’ll regain some balance and be able to make a wiser decision about how to (or even if you want to) have a conversation with the person instead. Acknowledge the other person’s feelings as well. Consider what story they might be telling themselves, and inquire about it. For example: “You sound upset (acknowledgment). Are you? Have I said something that caused you to react this way (inquiry)?” It just takes practice, like anything else.


Q. Can you give five tips to managing a difficult conversation?

JR: Most books on this topic, though they may speak differently about them, identify the same basic skills for handling difficult conversations:

1. Start with yourself. Acknowledge your feelings and gain control of them. Breathe. Identify your desired outcome for the conversation and try to guess at theirs. What do they want? What do you want?

2. Be curious. Inquire. Find out how they see the situation. Ask useful questions and listen. Don’t judge or make assumptions. Don’t take it personally. This is their story and they can tell it whatever way they want. Support them.

3. Acknowledge their story and their feelings. Validate their concerns. This doesn’t mean you agree. It means that you hear them. It’s a tremendous gift and moves the conversation in a useful direction. You get a gift, too. You learn a lot about what’s important to this person, which will be helpful when you begin to look for solutions.

4. Advocate for yourself. What is your story? What are they not seeing? Explain how the situation looks from your perspective. Go slowly and don’t assume.

5. Build solutions based on new understanding. As you begin to listen and talk, information comes out that will help you co-create effective solutions with your partner.


2004 Judy Ringer, Power & Presence Training

About the Author: Judy Ringer is a conflict and communication skills trainer, black belt in aikido, and sole owner of Power & Presence Training and Portsmouth Aikido. To learn more and sign up for free tips and articles like these, visit Note: You’re welcome to reprint this article as long as it remains complete and unaltered (including the “about the author” info at the end), and you send a copy of your reprint to


Preventing Workplace Violence: Dealing With an Angry Employee
Violence in the workplace is an increasingly common yet poorly understood problem. But experts agree that workplace tensions reflect what is happening in the society at large. Stress, personal problems and the uncertainty of modern life have left many workers feeling alone, vulnerable and ill-equipped to cope with conflict—now more than ever. When anger is unresolved, the chances of violence increase.

Recognizing the early signs of a problem before it becomes a disaster is the key to preventing workplace violence. Although there are no clear-cut indicators that tell us when anger will turn to violence, there are signs that tell us when anger is unresolved and becoming destructive.

Anger is a normal emotional response to stress, a perceived threat or conflict. Reasonable people can disagree, sometimes vehemently, without ever threatening or intimidating another person. In fact, research shows that expressing anger appropriately is healthy—like releasing the pressure in a tire that has been overinflated. But if the pressure remains too high and the tire is driven at high speeds, a blowout is inevitable.

Rarely does a single event send a happy, cooperative worker over the edge into violence. And while we seldom know all that is going on in our co-workers’ lives, stress is the common denominator for workplace violence. It usually comes from:

  • a serious personal problem that has made its way to the workplace
  • changes or threats to job status, such as a new assignment or supervisor
  • a personality conflict with a manager or another employee

Stages of anger
Whatever the cause, angry workers generally progress through predictable and sequential stages of increasingly negative attitudes and behaviors. The four stages of anger are:

  • negative attitude
  • power struggle, excessive arguing
  • cutting criticism, malicious gossip and sarcasm
  • revenge, vandalism and violence

For example
Let’s say you have just been promoted as the new manager in a new department. After several weeks, you observe that one of your employees frequently challenges your decisions. You are aware that this employee was expecting to get the promotion that you received. This individual is hurt, angry and choosing to deal with it by arguing and power struggling with you (stage 2). Consequently, one of two things may happen:

  • It will get worse—he will progress into stage 3 and become more covert with his anger via gossip and sarcasm, which will escalate the situation.
  • It will get better—he will quit power struggling, and slide back into stage 1. This is a sign that things are improving.

By understanding the stages of anger, you can assess if the strategies you choose to implement are making the situation better or worse.

What you can do
If you are concerned about an employee’s anger, try to place him in one of the stages of anger. That will give you a baseline of understanding the present situation—so that you can create appropriate intervention strategies—and a way to measure if strategies to remedy the situation are working or not. Second, try to pinpoint a time when things weren’t so tense. This may offer a clue as to what may be contributing to the present situation. For example, a recent divorce or an expected promotion that did not happen may be contributing factors.

Remember, whenever there is a potential for violence, talk with an employee assistance program (EAP) professional. They are trained in counseling, conflict resolution and communications, and can discuss options to help you develop a strategy to effectively handle the situation.

Organizational Behavior