Containing conflict

Author: Elisa Warner

Permitting respectful disagreement heads off larger conflicts.


An open exchange of ideas is crucial to organizational growth and development. However, disagreements between individuals can lead to interpersonal conflicts that can create an unpleasant environment and reduce an organization’s effectiveness.


Create a team culture that embraces differences and gives members permission to disagree.


Although many people are uncomfortable with conflict, disagreements are inevitable—and beneficial—within a diverse, freethinking culture. While conflict is a certainty, the reaction to such disagreements varies based on the associated personalities, situation, and team culture.

People may choose to react to conflict in one of five different ways:

  • Avoidance: The conflict is ignored or not addressed directly by one or more of the parties.
  • Accommodation: One person simply gives in to the other to keep the peace.
  • Competition: One or more of the parties engages in unrelenting “warfare” until they achieve their goal at the expense of the other party.
  • Compromise: A solution is reached where each side gives a little and neither side is completely satisfied with the outcome.
  • Collaboration: Following an active discussion, those involved craft a mutually agreeable solution to the problem that satisfies both parties.

Noted communications expert Ivor Heyman observes that in the United States, people tend to react to conflict along the extremes of avoidance or warfare, rather than compromise or collaboration. Cultural attitudes contribute to a fear of conflict and a preference for harmony. However, conflict is the inevitable result of self-expression and critical thinking, and is an essential component of growth and positive change.

How can a manager reap the benefits of creative disagreements while circumventing damaging personal conflicts?

Embrace Differences

As a manager, create a team culture that embraces differences of opinion, personalities, and working styles. Create an open and accepting atmosphere for discussion, giving team members permission to disagree. When discussions become heated, resist the temptation to jump in to resolve constructive or creative conflicts; instead, allow the parties to express themselves fully and come to their own resolution. Diversity will only strengthen your project.

Create a Written Policy to Address Grievances

Have a written policy in place to provide an avenue for dispute resolution in the event that conflicts escalate to the point where team relationships deteriorate and the project is impeded. A policy may include the following steps:

  • Bring conflicting parties together to discuss the problem one-on-one.
  • Enlist the help of a supervisor to mediate the discussion.
  • Request that the parties submit their perspectives in writing.
  • Call upon senior management to arbitrate the situation.
  • Bring in an outside conflict resolution team to help the parties work through the dispute.

Create an Atmosphere for Conflict Resolution

Ivor Heyman explains that the manager’s role is not to extinguish a conflict, but to create a “safe container” in which the conflict can be released without risk of external contamination or repercussions. Just as with a hazardous substance, the sturdiness of the container will vary with the danger associated with the conflict’s release. A minor conflict may be addressed informally, while a substantive conflict may require a more structured environment in order to gain resolution. To create an appropriate environment:

  • Approach the parties to schedule a time to discuss the issue in neutral territory (e.g. a coffeehouse or restaurant).
  • Set ground rules in advance of the meeting, anticipating any problems or annoyances that may arise to detract from the discussion (e.g. no interrupting; cell phones must be turned off, and so forth.)
  • During the meeting, have the parties address specific incidents, rather than general accusations. For example, “You treat me disrespectfully” is a general statement that provokes rancor. On the other hand, “At last week’s meeting, when I brought up a suggestion for the project and you made a joke at my expense and did not add the suggestion to the list,” provides a specific incident to which the other party can respond directly.

Similarly, have the parties discuss their emotions around the incident in question. The statement, “When you made that joke, I felt hurt and devalued that you did not take my idea seriously,” allows the other person to more clearly understand the impact of his or her actions. Finally, have the parties brainstorm specific solutions for future interactions. For example, “Next time, when you ask for team input, please acknowledge my suggestions in an appropriate manner.”

Manage Conflicts Effectively

Conflicts can escalate quickly. Effectively managing conflicts can prevent them from exploding.

  • Acknowledge Grievances: As a manager, you have a responsibility to take the feelings of your team members seriously. When approached regarding a conflict, engage in “deep listening” to ensure that both parties are heard. As defined by Ivor Heyman, deep listening involves examining the judgments made by each side; exploring the underlying emotions; and revisiting the basic assumptions of those involved.
  • Remain Neutral: To serve as an effective mediator, you must approach the situation without preconceived notions or bias. To do otherwise will escalate the conflict and threaten your credibility as a leader.
  • Encourage Resolution: Because conflicting parties are more likely to repair their relationship if they have ownership in the resolution of their conflict, avoid imposing your own solution.

Conflict in Non-Profit Organizations

The very nature of non-profit organizations contributes to interpersonal conflicts. While traditional corporations are driven by financial incentives, non-profits exist for the purpose of fulfilling a specific cause or objective. Non-profit employees typically work for a lower salary and have fewer avenues for professional advancement than their for-profit counterparts. As a result, non-profit staff members seek non-financial means of validation, such as job titles, professional activities and project leadership experience. As a non-profit project manager, make a special effort to validate and praise the contributions of all team members and encourage collaborative discussion and problem solving.


Elisa Warner develops research and training programs for non-profit and educational organizations. She is the former editor-in-chief of The Educational Facility Planner.

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