Whose Job is the Conflict?

From Maria Simpson’s Two-Minute Training Blog

I am a big proponent of taking responsibility for resolving a conflict that somehow includes or affects you, especially if you started the dispute, and most of these columns have offered skills for doing this.

Listening is the most important skill because it demonstrates your concern for the other person’s needs and provides important information that can lead to resolution.

Speaking appropriately, asking questions in a calm voice, without accusation and blame, is another skill that helps to resolve the conflict instead of escalating it.

Clarifying perspectives and increasing everyone’s understanding of all the different positions on the point in question is another skill that helps to resolve the conflict.

I have also made the observation that many managers are not as effective as they might be because they avoid, deflect, deny or delay dealing with conflict. Instead of dealing with the disagreement and improving the situation, the conflict is allowed to continue until it becomes explosive, and then we are talking about the need for crisis management, not conflict resolution.

On the other hand, the people who leap in there to address conflict that is not theirs to settle are rare and might even cause more conflict than already exists. So, when looking at a conflict and deciding what to do about it, maybe the first question to ask is:

Whose job is it to settle this conflict? Because maybe that is not your job right now.

Some circumstances are really tempting. For example: The person everyone talks about for not pulling his or her weight. Yes, this person creates conflict and makes it harder for everyone who has to take on additional work so the project is successful. But is it your job to address this issue with that person or even to call this matter to the supervisor’s attention?

If you go to the person in question, you might be seen to be taking on supervisory responsibility that is not yours. However, if you really want to talk to this person, try to have a thoughtful conversation about workloads. Explain that other members of the team have noticed that this person’s work is not up to his or her usual standards, and the team needs to know if they can help. Stay neutral, focus on facts, and use a sympathetic, non-blaming tone. Whatever you do, don’t threaten or issue an ultimatum. That is definitely the road to escalation.

It might be better to go to the supervisor first. If you all agree that the manager should be brought into the conversation, then pick a representative and raise the issue thoughtfully and confidentially. Explain how the team feels, and ask for recommendations on how to handle the situation. Be thoughtful. Ask for guidance. Don’t complain. And definitely don’t gossip.

Keep in mind though, that there may be circumstances affecting the situation that you know nothing about and that are, frankly, none of your business. You may have to accept a manager’s response that is unsatisfactory. So it goes.

Of course, there are times when it is definitely your job to address the conflict including instances of bullying, harassment, or unethical or illegal behavior. Tell the manager or tell HR in confidence. If your organization has an ombuds office, go there, but don’t let these behaviors go unaddressed. They will only continue and possibly escalate, and then it really is everybody’s job to end the conflict.


Maria Simpson

Maria Simpson, Ph.D. is an executive coach, consultant, trainer and mediator who has worked extensively with the corporate, non-profit and conflict resolution communities to promote incorporating conflict resolution into organizational systems and training people in the skills and approaches of mediation. MORE >

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