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Collaborative Problem Solving: An Effective Approach For Managing Conflict In The Workplace

by Seth Bernstein, Stuart Ablon
August 2011

The workplace is a complex interpersonal environment where conflict inevitably occurs. When handled poorly, conflict undermines relationships, team performance, and morale. It keeps managers and staff alike up at night, dreading the start of a new day at work. When handled well, working though conflict can build trust and create a positive work environment where people work effectively together.

Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) was originated by Dr. Ross Greene and subsequently developed by Dr. Greene and Dr. Stuart Ablon, and their associates at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard Medical School. It is a method of conflict resolution that was originally developed for working with very difficult children. As more people have learned CPS, it has been applied in an increasingly wide range of settings with diverse populations and provocative results. Its effectiveness has been demonstrated everywhere from homes and schools to residential treatment facilities, hospitals and even corrections facilities. We have found this approach to be coherent, accessible, and applicable to the workplace setting.

The CPS Philosophy

It is essential for the managers to establish an expectation among themselves and with their staff that conflict will be handled in a consistent manner. Managers also need to have and to communicate a clear philosophy of conflict management. The original philosophy of CPS is that “kids do well if they can. If they can’t, we adults need to figure out why, so we can help.” Translated into the workplace, this reads, “staff do well at their jobs if they can. If they can’t, managers need to help them figure out why, so they can.”

The CPS philosophy informs us that the manager’s explanation of a staff’s behavior, attitude, etc. will guide his or her intervention with that staff member. Conventional wisdom tells the manager that staff’s challenging behavior is usually designed to get things or avoid things, such as getting attention or avoiding work. Flowing from a conventional explanation like this, a conventional response to such behavior would be to ignore it or try to motivate more compliant behavior. This approach might work in some situations, but not as effectively as a transparent, systematic, and collaborative method of conflict resolution.

The CPS Approach To Managing Conflict

When presented with conflict or an expectation that a staff member is not meeting, managers generally have three choices: Plan A: impose their will; Plan B: collaborative problem solving; Plan C: drop the issue, at least for now.

Which option managers chose depends on the long term and short term goals managers have with individual staff; how far along they and their staff are in realizing those goals; and the situation/problem at hand. As managers come to know more about each of these Plans and as they improve their understanding of how each of their staff respond to them in different situations, they will gain more confident in which Plan to chose at any given point in time.

In executing Plan A, managers are exercising their prerogative as the person in authority. This is what French and Raven (1959) refer to as “legitimate power.” There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach. Sometimes it represents the shortest distance between two points. Sometimes staff really want their manager to make an executive decision and get on with it rather than take the time needed to arrive at a consensus.

More often, Plan A is experienced by staff in the same way they experienced a parent saying, “because I said so.” Staff may comply because there was no real choice, but they remain angry and consequently find passive ways to resist. Managers, may be able to tell themselves, “my staff did what I told them to do”, but it is highly likely that the situations which required the boss to give these orders will keep popping up. Plan A can be effective; it can also be risky and unproductive. It rarely solves tough problems in durable ways. It certainly does not teach staff the skills that would be needed to resolve such issues in the future without the intervention of their managers. It definitely does not build the kind of collaborative relationships that are key to effective management in organizations that require group problem solving to succeed.

Plan C has obvious advantages. “Pick your battles” is sage and time-tested advice, but that there is a significant downside to this strategy. Managers are likely to feel that when they execute Plan C they will be viewed by staff as dodging the issue or capitulating. They might then be concerned that their staff, in observing their managers avoid a conflict, will be emboldened to continue with this behavior. To execute Plan C properly, the manager must recognize that Plan C is not giving in. It is a well thought out decision. What is giving in? A failed Plan A leading to Plan C! In other words, the manager tries to make staff do something, it does not occur, and then the manager drops the expectation. The key to using Plan C successfully is to only use it tactically. Managers use it when they have reasoned that a particular conflict is not worth the time it will take to effectively work it through; because the timing is not right for dealing with the issue; or simply because they or their organizations have bigger fish to fry for the moment.

Plan B is the middle way. Plan B is the heart and soul of CPS: it is collaborative problem solving. At the end of a successfully executed Plan B the manger can say to him or herself, “we worked it out. We solved the problem…..together.” Obviously CPS did not invent the idea that people at different levels of authority can jointly work out their problems. What CPS does exceptionally well is to describe a series of  research-based  and easily understandable  steps for accomplishing this goal.

Plan B

Our description of Plan B below differs somewhat from how Plan B is described in working with challenging kids. The modifications to Plan B flow from our experience applying it in the workplace. Plan B consists of two phases. In the first phase, the manager and staff member form a collaborative relationship. They take turns working towards a mutual definition of their problem. This definition serves as the basis for entering into the second phase, which is negotiation and problem solving. The first phase generally takes a lot longer than the second. It’s a lot like painting a room in a house. To paint well, two-thirds of the time needs to be spent prepping. Only one-third of the time will actually be devoted to applying the paint. The same holds true for two people trying to solve a problem. It is the “prep work” that makes the difference between an effort that lasts and one that just buys a little time until the next conflict. Although the first phase of Plan B is broken into three steps, it is often necessary to go back and forth between steps to complete this prep work. Plan B should be thought of as a process, not a technique.

When Plan B is executed after careful thought has been given, it is called Proactive Plan B. However, sometimes situations quickly arise and it is not possible to take the time to thoughtfully develop a Plan B. The situation demands that the manager responds immediately. When managers apply the principles of CPS on the fly, without a clear plan, this is called Emergency Plan B. It is less likely to be effective than Proactive Plan B, but it is much more likely to be effective than trying to respond to a conflict in the moment without a set of guiding principles. Since chronic problems with staff not meeting expectations in the work place are quite common, managers who are skilled in using CPS will rarely need to use Emergency Plan B with staff they have come to know. Rather, they will have planned, proactive conversations with staff to develop an approach together that they can then use when the need arises in the future.

A Step By Step Illustration Of How To Execute Plan B

Follow the link to the full article which provides step by step instructions and multiple illustrations of how to execute Plan B. It also includes a “troubleshooting” section which provides guidance to managers about what to do when they feel stuck or find that a particular Plan B is not working as well as a broader discussion of the theoretical and empirical underpinnings of CPS.


CPSInTheWorkplace.pdf  (CPSInTheWorkplace.pdf)


Seth Bernstein, Ph.D., is a psychologist who has worked as a clinician and managed care executive for over thirty years. Dr. Bernstein is currently the Executive Director of the Accountable Behavioral Health Alliance. Prior to his work at ABHA, Dr. Bernstein worked as a manager for The Travelers Insurance Company, The Prudential, and Ernst & Young. He has written many articles, including Measuring Clinical Outcomes In Managed Mental Health and Transference In The Workplace. He is currently writing a book with the working title, Applied Psychology For Managers.

J. Stuart Ablon, Ph.D., is the Director of Think:Kids in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Ablon co-founded the Center for Collaborative Problem Solving where he also served as Co-Director from its inception until 2008. Dr. Ablon is co-author of Treating Explosive Kids: The Collaborative Problem Solving Approach and author of numerous articles, chapters and scientific papers on the process and outcome of psychosocial interventions. Dr. Ablon trains parents, educators, and clinicians and consults to schools and treatment programs throughout the world on the use of CPS.