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Typical conflict situations


  • How to deliver bad news

    Delivering bad news

    When you have to deliver bad news, such as the closure of the program, or that someone is no longer needed in the team.

    Funding has been cut and you need to tell James that the organisation can no longer afford for him to continue working on the regeneration program. You know he loves being outdoors and will be disappointed to no longer be part of the team.

    • Be honest about the situation and impact

    "I have some bad news that I know will be disappointing for you."

    • Get to the point and deliver the news clearly

    "Funding has been cut, we can no longer afford you on the regeneration team."

    • Explain how you made the decision

    "It was difficult to decide who to keep on and who we would let go from the program. In the end we decided on last on first off, and as you are the most recent addition to the team you are one of the people who has been cut from the program."

    • Recognise

    James might react with disappointment or even anger or upset and be prepared to listen to him with empathy.

    "I can see that the news is a very unpleasant surprise and you are bitterly disappointed. You want us to be upfront and fair in our decision making"

    • Offer options

    "We have looked for other opportunities for you to continue doing similar work. Here are our ideas and if you would like us to we can assist you to find another position in a similar program." NB do not offer assistance unless you are sure it can be delivered.

    Note on preventing conflict

    In the situation described above where it is necessary to decide who needs to miss out on an opportunity it might work to ask all those who might be affected to provide input into the decision.

    Example: "We have some bad news. We only have ongoing funding for 5 out of our existing 7 positions meaning two will have to be cut. We want to have a fair process to decide who goes or stays. Can we talk about the options with you before we make the hard decision"

  • You need to change behaviour or discipline someone

    Changing behaviour

    When you need to change behaviour or discipline someone, especially if past attempts at behaviour modification have not been successful.

    Jen is constantly late for her shift and this impacts others. In this situation it is important to be open to hear Jen's experience, even if you need to be firm about the change of behaviour. Try not to speak in terms of right and wrong rather than in terms of needs.

    • Name the problem

    "Jen, I need to speak to you again about the start time of your shifts."

    • Be specific

    "Yesterday you arrived at 11.45 for your 11.00 shift."

    • Explain impact

    "That meant that Warwick needed to stay back and was late for another appointment. When you were late on Friday I had to cover for you."

    • Invite discussion

    "I would like to discuss this with you, so that we can find a way that there is reliability as to your availability."

    • If there is no resolution, be firm

    "If this is not sorted out so that shifts are properly manned we will have to think of more radical solutions, perhaps even finding someone else to do your shift."

    • Be prepared to take the action you foreshadow if behaviour does not change, do not make "threats".

    Note on preventing conflict

    If there are rules and they are being broken, it is important that you address the problem immediately and gently and not ignore the behaviour.

    Early intervention that is calm and matter of fact, offering the other person a chance to explain while demonstrating the impact of the behaviour, is the best prevention.

  • Two people have a "personality clash" and are behaving badly towards one another

    Personality clash

    When two people have a "personality clash" and are behaving badly towards one another such as raised voices, personal abuse, etc.

    Harry and Joanne have had a number of arguments in the warehouse that are witnessed by others. They tend to use bad language and raise their voices.

    • Take responsibility for assisting and do not use third party concerns

    " I have noticed that the two of you are having trouble getting on. Is that right?"

    • Be specific

    "Last Thursday I noticed..."

    • Offer assistance

    "If you are having trouble getting on I would like to assist if I can"

    • Describe impact

    "I am concerned that other people might be troubled by the loud arguments you have"

    • Get expert help from HR or Voluntas (for instance)

    Note on preventing conflict

    People sometimes need help with managing relationships. Different approaches, styles, communication skills and capacity contribute to these problems.

    Often very early and gentle intervention without taking sides can assist. Think of yourself as the early intervention mediator. Make sure you can do this without judgement or blame.

  • There is an allegation of inappropriate behaviour such as bullying or harassment

    Bullying or harassment

    Where there is an allegation of inappropriate behaviour such as bullying or harassment.

    John comes to you and says that Alison, his supervisor, has been "bullying him".

    • Listen to understand, not to judge

    "I just want to understand what is happening and the impact on you first, before we decide what to do about your concerns."

    • Use non judgemental language while displaying that you take things seriously

    "It is really important to me that everyone who works here feels safe, and that workplace behaviour does not create risks to health and wellbeing."

    • Listen for impact, and don't ascribe intent

    "So I think you are saying that when Alison corrects your work, you feel undervalued and perhaps not trusted, is that right?"

    • Find out what John wants before taking action. Most people want to feel safe and valued.
    • Be clear about what you are going to do next and make sure that John is aware of "next steps".

    I am going to speak to Alison, not to tell her she is wrong but so that I can relay your concerns. I will get back to you by Thursday as to the next steps, which could involve getting together with Alison to sort this out, is that OK? In the meantime, what do you need to be able to carry on with your work?"

    Note on preventing conflict

    Good policies about what constitutes appropriate behaviour are vital. They should be easily accessible and understood.

    Training is also very important. When bullying or harassment is alleged, be aware that the very allegation is likely to cause further conflict. Framing the conversation as being about appropriate behaviour is useful.

    There is usually more than one side to the story. If you are discussing what happened in the past, be clear as to your purpose – is it to find out who is right or wrong? This is usually a task fraught with problems. Or, is the purpose to learn from what happened, so that everyone can feel comfortable in coming to work?

  • There is an argument about resources or allocation of work

    Conflict over resources

    When there is an argument about resources or allocation of work.

    The night shift leaves the kitchen in a mess, and the day shift complains about doing extra work.

    • Describe the situation from the independent perspective
      "There is a dispute about whose role it is to clean the kitchen"
    • Demonstrate you understand the different perspectives
      "The night shift thinks that cleaning the kitchen on the change of shift at 5.00 am is a burden, and the day shift is frustrated about having to do the extra work before members can get on with their work"
    • Show that you want to work it out with them NOT for them
      "I would like to see if we could find a way to deal with the issue fairly."
    • Seek each parties' perspective
      "Night shift, please tell me your view on the issue"Then make sure the other "side" has a chance to share their perspective.
    • Avoid judgements and the "right and wrong" or "good and bad" conversation
      "The most important thing is to agree on a way forward, not to decide who is right or wrong."
    • Support everyone in trying to work on an outcome that makes sense to both parties
      For example, start a brainstorming session:"What we are looking for is a solution so that the kitchen is clean and everyone thinks that they are making a fair contribution".

    Note on preventing conflict

    In this scenario your best role is as a mediator, not a judge. If you cannot fulfil that responsibility and feel you are judging one or the other party, it is better to find someone else to assist with the conversation. That person needs to be able to help focus on solutions, rather than assign blame or judgement.

    If the situation gets worse, it is advisable to seek assistance from an expert, manager, HR professional or mediator such as Voluntas.

  • There is change in an organisation, if people are feeling threatened by that change

    Threatened by change

    At times of change in an organisation, if people are feeling threatened by that change.

    There is going to be a restructure and everyone will be working in new larger teams, many with new managers.

    • Recognise that change is stressful
      "I understand that this change will create problems and I hope opportunities. I would like to explore with you the problems, as well as the opportunities"
    • Be prepared to discuss how the changes are to be implemented even if the change itself is "set in stone".
      "I want to discuss with you how we go about the change, how we make decisions about who is to lead each team, the membership of each team, and when the changes will begin."
    • Be prepared to listen actively to concerns and fears
      "So, Wendy, you are worried about the new structure. You are happy reporting to John, but do not know the other managers and have a concern that they might not understand what you are good at, and where you need help."
    • When trying to get your point across try using the word "and" instead of "but"
      So rather than saying "I know that you don't like this, but it is going to happen"
      Say: "I hear your concern is this... Can we work together to address your concerns and bring about the change that is required?"

    Note on preventing conflict

    People are less resistant to change when they are "brought along" or have a chance to buy in to what is happening. Even if change is essential it is better to acknowledge this, and have the team participate in the design of the change – even if they do not have the final say.

    If there needs to be a reduction in staff, the team may have some ideas about reduction in work hours or different shifts. You never know – they may come up with a better answer than you ever thought of!

  • Things go wrong and people are allocating blame, rather than learning from the experience

    learning from experiences

    When things go wrong and people are allocating blame, rather than learning from the experience.

    A program is not reaching its targets, funding is at risk and you think it is because Jane and Allan do not understand the needs of the stakeholders. They, in turn, accuse you of not supporting their work, or funding their good ideas.

    • Share the problem instead of assigning blame
      In this situation, the more you try to persuade the "other person" that it is their fault, the more defensive you will appear. As a result, the other party will defend itself more strongly.It is better to share the problem:We are having trouble reaching our target audience, I would like to talk about that"
    • Conversations about the past should focus on learning, not assigning blame
      "The idea of having a presence at the shopping centre on Saturdays seemed like a good one, but it does not seem to be creating traction. I wonder what we can learn from that."
    • If someone attacks you do your best to listen actively
      Respond (if you can) in a way that demonstrates understanding and is not defensive.


      Allan: "You are incompetent. If only we had spent the money on a good marketing plan as I suggested, we would never be in this mess."

      Response: "So Allan, I think what you are saying is that you were disappointed when we did not invest in a marketing plan. And you think that would have made a difference, is that right? And you believe that we need to make good management decisions to achieve great outcomes, have I got it right?"

    • Try not to solve the problem before everyone is ready
      Some people are still reacting, being defensive or need to vent or grieve before they make new decisions after there has been a problem.

    Note on preventing conflict

    It is worthwhile remembering that people react when their "identities" are under threat. Almost everyone needs to feel that they are competent, that they are "good" people and worthy of love and respect. When we feel under attack it is those identity needs that might be causing the pushback.

    For instance, a need to prove competence can be expressed as an attack on someone else's competence. So, it is important to try to frame feedback in a way that does not attack identity.

    For example: "I wonder what went on that caused us to miss the deadline. You are usually pretty good with deadlines and keeping our people informed. Can we discuss what we both learned from the situation and work out ways to avoid the same problems occurring in the future?"

  • People are not feeling valued

    Not feeling valued

    When people are not feeling valued.

    People are reluctant to address their feelings of being undervalued, often attacking others or blaming management instead. For example, Jo feels resentment. When she put in extra hours last week, no one acknowledged her extra effort, or acknowledged that she had to arrange childcare at her own expense.

    • Try to understand what your personnel are experiencing that is causing the behaviour.
      If someone is demonstrating that all is not right, by being less engaged, being grumpy or attacking others, try to understand what is going on for them. Before you attack behaviour, check in (in private) to see if all is OK."Hey Jo, I notice you were a little reserved in the meeting, just wondering if everything is OK?"
    • Provide opportunities for people to express themselves, before having your needs met.More active listening is needed when someone is feeling undervalued.
    • Be prepared to make the first move.Hey Jo, I may have made a mistake in not noticing, can we talk about it?"It is possible to share responsibility without accepting blame.

    Note on preventing conflict

    See the note about identity on the page on Learning from experiences. This lesson is really important when people are not feeling valued.

    Ongoing feedback, acknowledgement of good performance, noticing when people are trying hard even if they are not getting results, and just regularly checking can prevent people feeling undervalued.

    The value of asking simply "how are things going for you" and really taking the time to listen cannot be overestimated.

  • Roles are confused and people clash about who should take responsibility or give direction.

    Roles and responsibility

    When roles are confused and people clash about who should take responsibility or give direction.

    It is easy to use rank to solve problems by "telling" people what to do rather than empowering and supporting. For instance, people are likely to react when being "told" how to do something rather than deciding for themselves.

    • Acknowledge all of the issues and relationships at play
      "I think that we might all be confused about how decisions are or should be made. Is that right? You are worried that if you disagree with Peter he may punish you, after all he is your boss. Is that your concern?"
    • Try to discuss process and rules, and how they can assist with proper decision-making.
      "What do the policies say about how this decision should be made?"
    • Do not make assumptions.
      You do not need to understand everything at once. The first step is to engage with the other person, so that you can try to understand what is truly going on.

    Note on preventing conflict

    It is usually better to empower and trust others, rather than managing them as if they do not know what to do. People look for autonomy, to have the opportunity to be really good at something (mastery), and to have a purpose in what they do.

    In volunteering there is usually lots of purpose. Volunteers often crave appropriate autonomy and the chance to learn new skills.

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Last updated: 21 Dec 2020