Understanding 5 Levels of conflict

And why its important to your business.

Conflict is a natural part the human existence, but why are we so crap at it. In a 2008 study found that  the majority of employees (85%) have to deal with conflict to some degree and 29% do so “always” or “frequently.” In Germany this latter figure jumps to 56%, while employees in Ireland (37%) and the US (36%) also spend a significant amount of time managing disputes.

“The primary causes of workplace conflict are seen as personality clashes and warring egos (49%), followed by stress (34%) and heavy workloads (33%). Culture also plays a part in the perception of causes: as Brazilian workers are more likely to see a clash of values as a major cause of conflict (24%). In France, 36% of employees saw a lack of honesty as a key factor, compared with a global average of 26%.”

Gary Tremolada conflict management trainer facilitatora

Unsurprisingly, poorly managed conflicts have a cost attached to them: the average employee spends 2.1 hours a week dealing with conflict. For the US alone, that translates to 385 million working days spent every year as a result of conflict in the workplace. One in six (16%) say a recent dispute escalated in duration and/or intensity, only 11% of those surveyed have never experienced a disagreement that escalated.

To combat this here are 5 levels of conflict that you really need to be able to identify early on to ensure you are proactive in your approach to managing conflict in the workplace. The cost of conflict in workplaces is sometimes disguised as  poor performance, poor leadership and  inept E.I.

The 5 levels are;

1. Discomfort, is defined as a person feeling embarrassed and or sometimes anxious. In effect to make someone feel uneasy. Sometimes when this occurs, nothing really may have been said but it may have been insinuated. When a person feels like things aren’t quiet right or potentially felt that they were treated unfairly. The caveat, some people can deal with a great deal of uncertainly and simply keeping moving forward where others feel like they have been slighted.

2. Incidents, an instance of something happening; an event or occurrence. So, here something has occurred and was directed at the person or through other people. Typically in these incidents they are short sharp exchanges where both or one partly walks away saying things to themselves like.
” If only I said this or that, or I could have done that, or I can’t believe they just said that yo me etc”. The beginning of rumination(Rumination is the compulsively focused attention on the symptoms of one’s distress, and on its possible causes and consequences, as opposed to its solutions.)

3. Misunderstanding, in this stage information is tainted with the levels of discomfort and incident which frames the persons perception of the events in a positive or negative light. Here motives and facts are often confused and misperceived. This is were most people take a position on something. Which really means that it becomes difficult to communicate with and get to a mutually beneficial outcome. People tend to lose their ability to be curious and ask questions.

4. Tension, a mind which is affected by stress or tension that cannot think as clearly. Here the relationship is weighed down by negative emotions, attitudes and unfortunately stubbornness. This level means that there now is little flexibility and more than likely its about getting to someone back rather than solving the issue. Some people at this stage dread coming to work or don’t show up at all and worse sabotage the organisation because of that one person.

5. Crisis, a time of intense difficulty or danger. At this level, functioning even at what some would call basic levels is difficult to say the least. More people are dragged into the crisis and the us against them positioning takes place. Here displays of contempt, undermining and sabotage are coming into plain sight. In some circumstances physical altercations in the workplace.

The Ice Berg Principle

Observation that in many (if not most) cases only a very small amount (the ‘tip’) of information is available or visible about a situation or phenomenon, whereas the ‘real’ information or bulk of data is either unavailable or hidden. Essentially, convert conflict sits at the bottom of the ice berg and overt conflict sits at the top. When you see the conflict its often too late and you are now dealing with crisis.

What to do? First identify your outcomes. This from The Conflict Resolution Network.

FIGHT: AggressiveI win/ You lose FLIGHT: PassiveI lose/ You win

I lose/ You lose


FLOW: AssertiveI win/ You win
Control, demand. Submit to another’s power. Share power or work towards it.
Punish, reward. Resign to the situation. Unfold the opportunity.
Bulldoze to punish,to refuse to deal with other’s needs and concerns. Withdraw to avoid,to refuse to deal with

own needs and concerns.

Withdraw to consider needs and concerns of self and others.Return to address the issue as appropriate.
Explode, dumping responsibility on the other person and denying ownership of any part of the problem. Suppress at least to the other person, the distress felt. Contain discomfort carefully, if you choose now to deal with it at a more appropriate time.
Manipulate while appearing to compromise.  Surrender own needs in hasty compromise. Seek agreement which is fair to all involved. What do you want to achieve for you the other person and the organisation?

A great book to read about having difficult and sometimes confronting conversation is How to Grow a Backbone: 10 Strategies for Gaining Power and Influence at Work”, Written by: Susan Marshall and The Power of Positive Confrontation: The Skills You Need to Handle Conflicts at Work, at Home and in Life Written by: Barbara Pachter, Susan Magee. They are must reads for specific skills on managing conflict.

Direction coach gary tremolada

Some pointers

1. Focus on your approach. How you frame up the engagement remember its not about getting your way its about creating a place where you can get to a solution. Win/Win is not always possible but maintaining a air of respect and professionalism is critical.

2. Focus on the problem not the person. Nobody likes getting things wrong and being called out in front of others. Remember its a process issue not a personality issue initially. What are the needs that you need to be able to negotiate and what concerns do you need to address.

3. Long term perspective. Step back and look at the great context or the great end game. Define win/lose, lose/win, lose/lose and win/win. What are the advantages and disadvantages. This may mean that you redefine what a win really means.

4. Make agreement easy and incremental. Its all about options, come up with as many as possible. Listen and acknowledge their perspectives and engage them.

5. Reasonable and fair. Its about equity, trust and respect. Ensure that you address the needs of the overall outcome.

6. Look for the win small medium or large and acknowledge it.  Use a dialogue approach that is question why they are looking for a particular outcome.  The best example I heard for this is as follows. Two customer wanted to buy the same orange and negotiated hard with the seller. Both the  the buys agreed to purchase half an orange each. The seller then asked customer a. what will you do with the orange. Customer a. said that he only need the skin of the orange for the desserts he was making. Buyer b. said that he only needed the inside of the orange to make jam.

The moral of the story, ask questions and define the needs. Remember stay curious.



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