Contributors to Workplace Conflict: Part Two

By Paul Godin

Having consulted widely with clients, and having surveyed thousands of people on the question of what they see as the causes of conflict, a number of recurrent themes have emerged over the years. In part one of this feature, we explored three of the six most prevalent contributors to conflict, chiefly identity issues, strong emotions and “what happened” issues.

Here we explore the remaining three—negative history, situational issues and expectations of opposition—and how to manage the broader context of conflict in the workplace:

Negative History
One of the biggest contributors to conflict is the existence of negative history between parties. Negative history can be personal in nature (Raj hates Sue) or organizational (union members distrust management and vice versa). Sometimes, both are present.

History is the lens through which we see the other side. The deeper the bad blood is, the thicker the lens, the greater the likelihood of conflict.

Negative history makes us expect the worst from others, and then we act accordingly (in aggressive or defensive ways). Worse, negative history can make us actively seek to hurt the other side. If we see them as the enemy, we treat them that way. By treating them like the enemy, we make them our enemy. Worse, we confirm their equal and opposite negative view of us, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

People are pre-disposed to distrust and judge their enemies in negative ways. They don’t listen meaningfully to their enemies. They may find that their primary goals are supplanted by secondary ones like retribution, revenge, or wanting to embarrass the other side.

Expectations of Opposition
A similar dynamic is created by another contributor to conflict, the expectation of opposition from the other party, whether real or imagined. Many conflict situations are created when people enter a conversation or engagement expecting a fight. They have pre-judged that they will meet opposition to their goals, so they enter primed for confrontation.

For example, an employee who expects a manager to deny them a promotion may come into the manager’s office with an argumentative tone to make their case, thereby putting the manager on the defensive from the very beginning.

Unfortunately many of us are prone to expecting opposition, so this dynamic is common. Instead, if we enter situations with a more open mind, we might get a much more tolerant and open-minded reaction from the people we deal with. When we see people as barriers, and we treat them that way, as an enemy, we create the very barrier we expected.

Situational Issues
The final contribution to conflict that comes up repeatedly is the existence of situational issues, contributors inherent in the situation. Examples of such issues include process problems like the form of the communication. A tense negotiation may be easier to manage face-to-face than by phone or by a poorly-connected Skype conversation.

Delivering a message in writing may similarly create a very negative response if it lands as insulting or cold, despite a warmer intent. Language differences may make a hard conversation harder, or even create a misunderstanding that gives rise to a dispute.

Pressures from the situation, such as timing limits, can also lead people to communicate in non-optimal ways, or to rush their approach and miss steps that could avoid a conflict. A boss who takes three minutes to fire off an email delivering a difficult message instead of having an hour-long face-to-face conversation to manage the blow may ultimately be worse off.

Once we understand why conflicts happen, how they can escalate, and why some conversations are so much harder to have, we can better strategize how to avoid conflicts. We can also minimize the degree and frequency of such conflicts, and manage those that do arise more effectively.

The six contributors set out above are the most common ones seen again and again, in various forms. They often occur in combinations as well, like an interconnected web of triggers. If someone is your past enemy, and they dispute your view of events, it will trigger an identity issue, leading to a strong defensive emotional reaction. If it was done in public, the situational issue makes it even worse.

Understanding the cause of the problem is the first step to managing such conflicts. If you recognize that someone is being aggressive because they are worried about losing face, calm things down by finding a route allowing them to save face. If strong emotions are derailing a conversation, request a break to allow everyone to calm down. If a conversation is likely to be touchy and you’re not sure how the other party will react, avoid the situational problem by talking face-to-face.

Once we understand where the conflict is rooted, we can start dealing with it appropriately.

Paul Godin is leading a Having Difficult Conversations Successfully webinar on February 27. For more information on this webinar and other professional development opportunities, please visit

Paul Godin is the principal of Katalyst Resolutions, a dispute resolution training and service provider based in BC but operating globally. Formerly a lead trainer and course designer for the Stitt Feld Handy Group, Paul is a world-recognized mediator and trainer and the author of the chapters “A Practical Guide to Conflict Management System Design” and “Principles of Negotiation” in The Alternative Dispute Resolution Practice Manual. He can be reached at and for more information.


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