Creating Kinder, More Productive Workplaces: Ongoing and Everyday Conflict Engagement

 Ongoing and Everyday Conflict EngagementConflict is tough for most of us. According to many physiologists, we tend to tap into several simple strategies when faced with conflict: fight, flight, or freeze. As a result, we likely aren’t reducing unnecessary conflicts, and effectively dealing with necessary conflicts in productive ways. So many opportunities are lost because we aren’t engaging well. Being effective at conflict, both in a proactive and reactive way, demands that we work at it as an ongoing and everyday activity. In essence, it is a lifestyle choice in how we talk, problem solve, inquire with others, and arrange our processes and teams.

There are a number of choices, activities, and strategies that can be used to enhance your organization’s ability to handle conflict in a better way. The following are just a few:

  1. Hold People Accountable for Negative Behaviors and Celebrate Positive Behaviors
    In working with organizations and leaders in many fields, I have found a few common missteps in conflict. One is the mishandling or lack of dealing with toxic people in our workplaces. They often get passes because they are good at their jobs or they are retiring soon, among various other reasons. The trouble is that they are doing grave damage to our teams and they also are setting a norm that bad behavior is allowed. Ultimately, we create workplace monsters by allowing the negative behaviors. Therefore, skills are needed to hold people responsible and foster realistic change.Additionally though, we also must praise those team members who collaborate, share work, ask questions, are kind and gracious to their peers, and participate in a culture of radical candor (the topic of an outstanding book by Kim Scott). It can be as simple as saying “thank you” for asking a question or providing well-informed constructive feedback. It may include features of a performance review and therefore financial incentives for sharing work and helping others with work. The key is to celebrate those times when people are exhibiting positive conflict behaviors.
  2. Ask More Questions. Ask Better Questions
    Experiences in our youth do little to promote the use of questions as a leadership tool. Therefore, it can be difficult to ask thoughtful and strategic questions “on the spot” when we are struggling with problems. Questions are such an important tool in conflict and any problem-solving activities. They lead to better problem identification and therefore more robust problem solving and even relationship building. People feel honoured, trusted, and included when they are involved via good questions and responses.Brainfishing: A Practice Guide to Asking Questions by Gary Furlong and Jim Harrison, is a particularly helpful book that provides tools for improving the strategic and relationship-building use of questions. It provides ideas and steps for improving how you ask questions. First though we must disregard any natural tendencies to think that asking questions is a sign of weakness or dimness. We need to admit we don’t understand or that we need to understand more deeply. This leads to curiosity, which can lead to better outcomes for the people on our teams and on our projects. Just think about the last time you asked someone a genuine question. I imagine that thoughtfulness on your part led to a great discussion and an enriched relationship.
  3. Involve People Strategically
    The pendulum can swing really far when it comes to collaborative decision making and processes. Some organizations have embraced the principles of collaboration and yet they aren’t using it strategically enough. Signs of this include: people speaking disparagingly about meetings, people not implementing plans and decisions, and process fatigue (“Are we ever going to get anything done?”). Great leaders are thoughtful about the when, how, and who of inclusion. I liken it driving a stick shift; it takes practice and you have to push, release, and shift at the right moment for the transition to be smooth. The parts need to be moving together in a coordinated fashion at the right moments.It is important to ask people how and when they want to be involved, and then respond when you can’t meet those needs and include them in the ways they want when possible. Additionally, team members need to advocate for themselves and their peers when they need to be included in an important plan or project decision. People don’t need deep involvement in each and every step typically, yet we need to consider how we involve them in order to provide the opportunity for their voices to be heard and our processes and final products to be that much better.
  4. Provide for Various and Dynamic Conflict Modes
    Conflict competent teams are part of conflict competent organizations, meaning that every person in the system has some degree of conflict-engagement skills and there are clear avenues for handling conflict. The modes have to work for the people in the system. Some systems include online features, clear policies and processes, more ongoing and consistent performance review channels, training workshops, committees/boards, purposeful interpersonal interactions, policy/procedure reviews, one-on-one conversations, coaching, formal processes (e.g. mediation), and disciplinary processes. By no means is this list exhaustive but it gives a sense of the many moving parts of a conflict competent organization.Identifying the appropriate modes for any organization involves steps; talking with people to identify the right ways of handling conflict, designing how these processes will operate in your organization, building awareness around the modes, experimenting with the modes, correcting any inadequacies, and evaluating in an ongoing way are just some of the steps. These steps can take time and may need outside help, but they are invaluable in having a conflict competent organization.

In order to do all of the above, there is a fundamental characteristic of the organization and it is to:

  1. Gain Executive-level Support for a Collaborative Culture
    It is entirely possible for a team in an organization to do #1-4 in an organization that doesn’t, but they are limited by their surroundings, policies, norms, and executive leadership that foster those surroundings, policies, and norms. In order for conflict competency and collaboration to occur in every team and in every meeting, disciplinary process, and strategic planning session, the executive team must support the principles and build and use the skills themselves. This doesn’t mean simply setting policies and changing the hierarchical structure. It means diving deep into the organizational culture in order to create new systems, structures, and therefore relationships. Too often, this isn’t the starting point but it should be.

The “why” of this is important. People are demanding this type of interaction in their workplaces, communities, and other team-oriented activities more. This is particularly true of our emerging generations. Each of these helps people to feel more connected to their employers and fellow team members. Rather than mistreating one another over unnecessary conflict, coworkers can work alongside each other while also engaging in problem solving (i.e. conflict resolution) in a more robust way. People can start solving the problem that their organization is having. Numbers 1-4, in particular, provide a clearer path to helping our workplaces become kinder, more collegial spaces. Work can be tough at times, often because of how we interact with our colleagues. It is so much better to work in an environment in which there is the expectation that we are supportive, collaborative, and kind to one another through even the most difficult of times. This frees our time at work to be more productive and doing so in a collaborative and supportive way.


About the Author

Joan Sabott

Joan is a facilitator for the Queen’s IRC Strategies for Workplace Conflicts program. Joan Sabott is a practitioner, consultant, trainer, teacher, and coach in conflict engagement and resolution. Currently, she is an adjunct faculty at Creighton University in Omaha, NE, USA, on leadership and conflict.  Joan is an Affiliated Practitioner and former Senior Program Manager with The Langdon Group. She has consulted on various projects in the organizational sector for businesses and public agencies, and on environmental projects in the substantive areas of water, transportation, and land use and planning.  From one day (or hour) to the next, she is mediating, facilitating, coaching, advocating and providing impromptu training sessions on conflict-related topics. Joan holds a B.S.B.A. in History, a Certificate in Secondary Education, and a Masters in Negotiation and Dispute Resolution, all from Creighton University.


If you are interested in custom training on this topic, please contact Cathy Sheldrick at



Furlong, G. T., & Harrison, J. (2018). Brainfishing: a practice guide to questioning skills. Place of publication not identified: FriesenPress.

Scott, K. (2019). Radical candor: be a kick-ass boss without losing your humanity. New York: St. Martins Press.

Conflict Coaching in the Workplace

It is common for employees to seek help from their manager if they are experiencing conflict or relationship challenges in the workplace.  What are your options as a manager to respond in a way that provides benefits to the employee, to the workplace as a whole and to you?  Consider this scenario:

You are Karen’s manager:

  • Karen is a longtime front line employee in the Hamilton branch and has recently taken a promotion as a front line manager, overseeing 20 full and part-time staff in the same location.
  • Karen asks you for a meeting to discuss how to handle “a problem employee”, Frank.
  • She explains that Frank has been resisting the improvements she has been implementing in the location’s workflows.  She worked there so long she knows all the changes that need to be made and began making them as soon as she became manager.
  • Karen explained that staff resistance has forced her to “manage them tightly”.
  • You have recently received complaints from three of Karen’s staff alleging that she was micromanaging, stifling creativity and allowing them no voice in the change management process.

How would you handle this meeting with Karen?

It seems to you that she is looking for you to step in or at least to give her the answer to her difficulties.  Like many of us, your first inclination might be to jump in and give Karen suggestions, advice or recommendations or even directions about what she should do.  After all, isn’t that what she is asking you for?  And don’t we feel pleased that she has enough respect for us and our experience that she asks for our advice and direction?

In this moment you have a choice.  You can provide advice or direction or you could do something different.  But what?

Advice-giving might be appropriate in some situations, perhaps when it is a simple request, an emergency situation or some decisive action is needed immediately.

But I suggest that there are risks and potentially significant downsides (to you, the employee and the workplace) to taking that approach in every situation without further exploration.  In particular, there is a risk to the employee’s future growth and a risk to your time and role as manager.

What is a viable alternative?

Rather than giving Karen “the answer”, it is worthwhile to start by taking some time to reflect more deeply on the situation.  Karen is a new manager.  She has the difficult task of trying to manage people who were once her peers.  This is likely an ongoing challenge rather than a one-off situation. Is this an opportunity for Karen to learn and grow?  If so, how can you best support her in that learning?

Perhaps you could try a conflict coaching approach.

What is conflict coaching?

Conflict coaching is a relatively new type of coaching and my primary source of inspiration has been Cinnie Noble.[1]  She is a pioneer of the process she calls conflict management coaching (also known as conflict coaching). She explains that conflict coaching was developed on the foundation of three pillars: professional coaching, alternative dispute resolution and neuroscience. She developed her model in 1999, recognizing that workplace (and other) interpersonal disputes are not always about “issues” but can be triggered by how people interact with each other. People are looking for a one-on-one service model to help them manage disputes independently – with increased skill and confidence. A basic framework for conflict coaching starts with the client identifying his or her goal. By using a process of inquiry and other methods, coaches help clients to increase their level of awareness, shift their perspectives and focus on ways to achieve their objectives.[2]

Conflict coaching is one of many conflict management tools premised on the fact that conflict is normal and inevitable and provides an opportunity to improve relationships, prevent unnecessary escalation of conflicts, contribute to the overall health and well-being of workplaces, and reduce the costs of ill-managed conflict.  Conflict coaching has many advantages for managers as well as employees.[3]  The one-on-one approach helps to make employees feel valued and appreciated and encourages them to engage more in their own career.[4]

You don’t have to be a professional coach to provide your employee with effective coaching.  But you do need to learn how to take a new approach when she comes for help.

How is conflict coaching different?

Conflict coaching is based on a number of important principles, practices and skills, including a number which focus on the “empowerment” of the person being coached:[5]

  1. The employee is willing to participate
  2. The employee’s self-determination is vital
  3. The employee is the expert in their own life
  4. The coach/manager walks alongside not in front
  5. The employee has the capacity to change the quality of her interactions with others
  6. The process is tailored to the employee’s individual goals and definitions of success
  7. The coach asks, rather than tells, using powerful questions
  8. The coach focuses on the employee’s strengths rather than weaknesses
  9. The coach helps the employee to learn from both failure & success

Just what does employee “empowerment” mean in this context?

You may remember the old saying:  “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Advice-giving or direction is like giving the man the fish.  Coaching is more like teaching the man to fish.  It can lead to increased personal capacity, which in the long run, will save you time and frustration and encourage a healthier workplace.

For many people this approach feels unfamiliar, perhaps even frustrating.  Perhaps you believe that you know the “right” answer and that it would just be quicker to tell your employee what to do!

Coaching, however, asks you to hold back from advice-giving as long as the employee is still learning.  That might take quite a bit of self-control.

Empowerment means primarily inquiring rather than telling.  It means that the coach focuses on asking powerful, probing questions to help the employee set reasonable goals, to dig deeply to discover the answer for herself and then to develop a plan.  This process probably takes a series of meetings over a period of time in order to allow the employee to try things, discuss how it went and make adjustments as needed.

My daughter took a coaching course recently and after about three weeks came to me to express her dismay.  She wanted to become a coach because she felt that she had significant experience and insight that she wanted to share to assist her clients move forward.  The course was encouraging her to hold back on sharing that advice and experience and, instead, use questions to help her client discover insights for themselves.  Initially, she found that very counter-intuitive and frustrating.  However, at the end of the course which involved significant role-play and feedback, she recognized the real benefit of this approach.  She realized that it is actually consistent with her core belief that her clients have it within themselves to handle the conflict or challenge they are facing.  They just need help to access that strength.

Coaching can be a difficult transition for managers.  At first it seems like it takes so much effort and there just isn’t time in the day!

However, if the goal is the employee’s learning and growth (and the overall well-being of the workplace), to do otherwise is to over-function, inhibit learning and create dependence and resentment.

Over-functioning parents create under-functioning children.  Telling (rather than asking) can seriously impede the maturation of kids.  It is the same in the workplace.

Bill Bullard says:[6]

Opinion is really the lowest form of human knowledge.  It requires no accountability, no understanding.  The highest form of knowledge… is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another’s world.  It requires profound purpose-larger-than-the-self kind of understanding.”

If you immediately tell Karen what to do, or explain what you would do in this situation, what are the chances that she will be back again with the same kinds of problems in the future?  Ultimately, you want her to learn how to be an excellent manager so she can resolve conflict in her team directly and model good conflict management skills.

Using conflict coaching

So what would a conflict coaching process look like in this scenario?[7]

Let’s assume you have a good working relationship with Karen (if you don’t, you will probably need to work on that first in order to provide helpful coaching).  During the first meeting, you can focus on asking questions that help Karen to explore the situation such as:

  • What happened? [encourage Karen to articulate what is really on her mind]
  • What does “resistance” from your staff look like?
  • What is your response to those actions?
  • What is the challenge for you arising from all of this?  [encourage Karen to identify what is really important]
  • What do you want to accomplish?  [encourage Karen to set her own goal]

Then consider exploring some deeper explanations for the resistance, including:

  • What arises for you when you feel resistance?  [help her to identify her own reactions, feelings, fears etc.]
  • What might be underlying those responses from your staff?  [help Karen to see the situation from other perspectives]
  • What would be an ideal outcome here?

Finally, encourage Karen to develop some options for moving ahead.  Remember that, usually, Karen will be most likely to follow through with ideas that she has developed herself.

In developing your questions try to keep them open and avoid the “advice in disguise question” i.e. “Have you tried seeking input from your staff before implementing changes?”  This kind of question is a thinly veiled way of suggesting your favoured solution.

Many professional coaches balance client empowerment (questioning) with some advice-giving in appropriate situations.  The trick is not to go to advice or solutions too quickly without first giving the employee a chance to learn the lesson themselves.  Like most new skills, training and practice will assist you in building your own capacity for conflict coaching.  Good luck!

To learn more about conflict coaching, check out Cinnie Noble’s books (footnote 1).  And consider participating in the Queen’s IRC Strategies for Workplace Conflicts course, where you will learn and practice conflict coaching.

About the Author

Kari Boyle

Kari D. Boyle is a conflict engagement practitioner, consultant, trainer and retired lawyer. She served as Executive Director of Mediate BC Society for ten years followed by one year as its Director of Strategic Initiatives. She enjoys using her legal, mediation and management experience to improve citizens’ access to viable and affordable conflict management options in the workplace and beyond. Previously, she practiced corporate commercial litigation in Vancouver for 14 years, worked in-house for 6 years specializing in legal services management, led mediation research initiatives at UBC, and taught conflict resolution as an adjunct professor at UBC Law School. She continues to support system reform and access to justice initiatives. Kari is a facilitator for the Queen’s IRC Strategies for Workplace Conflicts program.





[1] Cinnie Noble, C.M., BSW, LL.B., LL.M. (ADR) is a chartered mediator (C.Med) and professional certified coach (PCC). She is the founder of CINERGY Coaching and the author of two coaching books: Conflict Management Coaching: The CINERGY Model (2011) and Conflict Mastery: Questions to Guide You (2014). Both are available on Cinnie’s website ( has a great selection of helpful papers and articles.

[2] Taken from Frydman, R. (2015) Conflict Management Coaching in the Workplace. ADR Update Fall 2015. Retrieved February 28, 2019, from

[3]Kelleher-Flight, B. (2012). 7 Advantages of Conflict Resolution Coaching. Retrieved February 28, 2019, from .

[4] Maynard, J. (2019, February 12). Four Ways to Provide Individual Attention Like a Coach. Retrieved February 28, 2019, from

[5] Noble, C. (2011). Conflict Management Coaching: The CINERGY™ Model. Retrieved March 12, 2019, from:

[6] Bill Bullard is an American educator and this quote is taken from .

[7] Obviously, each situation is different and the following questions are only examples of how a coaching conversation might emerge.


Dealing with Difficult Behaviours (Rather Than Difficult People)

In the Queen’s IRC Strategies for Workplace Conflicts course, we start by asking participants what they would particularly like help with in their workplace.  A common response is “difficult / high conflict people”.  However you define it, this is a huge challenge in today’s workplace and, unless it is handled well, it takes significant time, energy and expertise away from the work to be done.

Most people have heard about Serena Williams’ public outburst at the U.S. Open this fall.[1] Her behaviour and words were shocking and unexpected.  Does that make her a “difficult” or “high conflict” person?  If so, then how does that change our thinking about the situation and the complex issues that emerged afterwards?

When we encounter these situations in the workplace, it is important to try to avoid the very human desire to label people and move on.  There are better ways to handle things.

The focus of this article is to suggest three key principles:

  1. Start with self-assessment
  2. Focus on the behaviours not the person
  3. Find and use accessible tools and skills to handle these situations effectively

1. Start with self-assessment

Tammy Lenski quotes psychologist Jeffrey Kottler:  “Every person you fight with has many other people in his life with whom he gets along quite well.  You cannot look at a person who seems difficult to you without also looking at yourself.”[2]

It is probably safe to say that the chances that we can actually change another person are pretty low.  So it makes sense that we need to start by examining ourselves.

Because we view the world only through our own eyes, it is often very hard to see how we may have contributed to a situation or to certain difficult behaviours.  Categorization is a cognitive tool to help us assert control and manage uncertainty or complexity.  In some ways, it simplifies our lives to put people in boxes, like calling someone who disagrees with us “difficult”.  We all have blind spots (the things that we don’t know we don’t know) and the minute we label someone we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to identify and learn from our blind spots or to see the situation from the other’s viewpoint.

In addition, if we label we open ourselves up to a variety of implicit biases, most notably:

  • Confirmation bias which causes us to look only for information that supports our original preconception
  • Stereotyping which can lead to “us” and “them” approaches
  • Fundamental attribution error, a bias which causes us to attribute another person’s poor behaviour to a serious personality issue, but attribute our own poor behaviour to a tough context or situation

What is the best way to uncover our blind spots?  Curiosity plus vulnerability (which Brené Brown wisely says also involves great courage).[3]  We need to pause and ask people we trust about the situation and our perceptions. Are they fair, balanced, accurate?

We can also benefit from strengthening our empathy muscle.  More on that below.

2. Focus on the behaviours not the person

I can be very “difficult”.  I remember a time when I was trying to advocate for a very ill family member in the health system.  Looking back, I was probably perceived to be like the proverbial “dog with a bone” because I had a particular question I needed to be answered and none of the experts seemed able to provide an answer in a clear way.  If the experts chose to label me as “difficult” in that situation they would be more likely to dismiss my concerns instead of trying to find out what my underlying issues were and how to resolve them.

Tammy Lenski points out that most of us can be difficult in certain situations or with certain people but that doesn’t merit the label of “difficult person”.[4]  When confronted by difficult behaviour we need to resist the temptation to conclude that someone is crazy, stupid or evil.

I suggest that in conflict, people’s “difficult” behaviours can fall into four broad categories:

Categories of Behaviour

  • Upset – anyone can be upset for a wide variety of reasons
  • One off or contextual behaviour seen as difficult – most of us
  • Repeated patterns of difficult behaviour (the group Bill Eddy refers to as “high conflict personalities”) – some of us
  • Personality disorders – a few of us

The fourth category needs training to diagnose, but if it is present, it may be helpful to call in various kinds of skilled support (EAP, counselling, etc.).

Bill Eddy’s reference to “patterns of behaviours” is helpful because it focuses on the behaviour and not on the person.[5]  We need to avoid a quick judgment (e.g. “difficult person”) since our assumptions may hide helpful information.  There may be something else going on.  Sometimes they are people who are being scapegoated.  Sometimes they are raising important issues that the organization needs to hear but would rather avoid.

Research confirms that the most successful teams (and organizations) have high levels of “psychological safety”, which means a culture which actively fosters the belief that one will not be criticized, rejected or punished for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.[6]

Further, Amy Edmonson (Harvard Business School) found that:

“.. the best employees for promoting organizational learning are often those who never leave well enough alone, pointing out mistakes and flawed practices. But those who management rates as top performers are often those who silently do what they’re told and what has always been done—and don’t annoy their superiors with complaints and questions about flawed practices.”[7]

In a setting with low psychological safety, it is likely that the employee who “never leaves well enough alone” will be labeled as “difficult” and his or her input will be discounted or ignored.  This result could be an enormous loss to the organization.  How can we continue to value the person and their input, and focus on addressing any inappropriate behaviour in a healthy way?

Professor Julie Macfarlane commented on the Serena Williams scenario:  “What I am trying to point out is that Serena shows us how easily and quickly we buy into a demonized evaluation of someone and their behaviour.[8]  The tennis court is Serena’s workplace.  Did this situation involve a clear pattern of behaviour or was this a one-off unfortunate event?  Many people were quick to judge her and some of the comments have the hint of confirmation bias working behind the scenes.  In the middle of her tirade she was trying to make a point about important issues at least worth talking about.  I’m not saying her behaviour was acceptable.  It wasn’t.  But it is easier to dismiss or ignore what she was trying to communicate if we label her as a “difficult person”.

3. Find and use accessible tools and skills to handle these situations effectively

After doing our self-assessment and considering the nature of the behaviour, what do we DO to deal with a person’s difficult patterns of behaviour in the workplace?  This is where our empathy muscle comes in handy.  Some people in the workplace who create or participate in patterns of difficult behaviour:[9]

  • Experience conflict as part of who they are. It’s a life-long personality pattern of thinking, feeling, and acting.
  • May be starved for empathy, attention and respect
  • May have alienated everyone around them
  • Are used to being rejected, disrespected and ignored
  • May use conflict as a way to get attention – even negative attention is better than none at all
  • Tend to attack those closest to them or those in authority
  • Are usually incapable of logical talk about or insight into themselves or others
  • Have trouble feeling empathy
  • Tend to blame others (Brené Brown describes blaming as our brain’s way of discharging pain or anger and avoiding accountability[10])

Knowing this, I feel compassion for people whose patterns of behaviours eventually sabotage their own happiness in inexplicable ways.  They can end up very lonely people since they push everyone away, even those who are very caring and want to help.

Bill Eddy advocates for starting with curiosity and then developing and communicating empathy, attention and respect.  Curiosity and active listening help us to avoid snap judgments and implicit biases and can improve psychological safety.  Empathy can lead us to different responses that can have a profound influence on how we deal with the behaviours.

These approaches seem, at first, counter-intuitive when we see the impact of difficult behaviour on the people we work with.  But remember that if we start with punishment, we may just be feeding that person’s need for attention rather than helping to shift the behaviours.

There are effective tools, skills and training available to help you navigate difficult behaviours.  I highly recommend both Bill Eddy’s High Conflict Institute[11] and Tammy Lenski’s website, podcast and blog.[12]  Both provide very valuable resources on this topic.  I have found that knowledge alone is not enough.  We need to learn skills that take practice to master.  I encourage you to seek out training and you will see a difference.

The good news?  These skills are useful with everyone – not just those exhibiting difficult behaviours.  Bonus.

Join us at the Queen’s IRC Strategies for Workplace Conflicts program to learn more about dealing with difficult behaviours and many other things.


About the Author

Kari Boyle

Kari D. Boyle is a conflict engagement practitioner, consultant, trainer and retired lawyer. She served as Executive Director of Mediate BC Society for ten years followed by one year as its Director of Strategic Initiatives. She enjoys using her legal, mediation and management experience to improve citizens’ access to viable and affordable conflict management options in the workplace and beyond. Previously, she practiced corporate commercial litigation in Vancouver for 14 years, worked in-house for 6 years specializing in legal services management, led mediation research initiatives at UBC, served as an adjunct professor at UBC Law School and provided support to the Civil Justice Reform Working Group and the initiative to create a new set of Supreme Court Civil Rules in British Columbia. She is currently the Coordinator of the BC Family Justice Innovation Lab, a member of the Access to Justice BC Leadership Group.

Kari is a facilitator with the Queen’s IRC Strategies for Workplace Conflicts program.



[1] ESPN. (2018, September 08). 2018 US Open Highlights: Serena Williams’ dispute overshadows Naomi Osaka’s final win | ESPN. Retrieved October 1, 2018, from

[2] Lenski, T. (2017, December 04). How to deal with difficult people: A mediator’s strategy. Retrieved October 1, 2018, from

[3] Brown, B. (n.d.). The power of vulnerability. Retrieved September 28, 2018, from

[4] Lenski, T. (2017, December 04). How to deal with difficult people: A mediator’s strategy. Retrieved October 1, 2018, from

[5] Eddy, B. (n.d.). Who Are High Conflict People? Retrieved October 1, 2018, from

[6] Lewis, A. R. (2018, June 28). The Two Traits of the Best Problem-Solving Teams. Retrieved October 1, 2018, from

[7] Sutton, R. I. (2018, August 13). How Bosses Waste Their Employees’ Time. Retrieved October 1, 2018, from

[8] Macfarlane, J. (2018, September 10). Crazy, Uncontrolled, Bad: How Serena Williams was Punished. Retrieved October 1, 2018, from

[9] Eddy, B. (n.d.). Who Are High Conflict People? Retrieved October 1, 2018, from

[10] Hurlock, H. (2018, June 05). Two Lessons on Blame from Brené Brown. Retrieved from

[11] High Conflict Institute. (n.d.). Retrieved October 1, 2018, from

[12] Lenski, T. (n.d.). Retrieved October 1, 2018, from

3 Bad Habits that Impede Successful Conflict Resolution in the Workplace

3 Bad Habits that Impede Successful Conflict Resolution in the WorkplaceA habit can be defined as a “usual manner of behavior.” But what I know about conflict is that there is often nothing “usual” about it. What happens to those of us who support others in conflict is that we tend to reach for the same set of tools each time, although we often are trying to solve very different problems. Even with the best of intentions, these habits can result in frustration, shallow or even bad resolutions, and won’t meet the needs of the people in conflict. Here are some common habits when dealing with conflict and what can be done to overcome them.

Habit #1: Intervening With the Wrong Process

When problems, disputes, and conflicts arise, we habitually fall back on solutions that have worked in the past, or processes and policies with which we are comfortable. But using the same set of tools to help resolve all conflicts can’t take care of every job in our organizations any more than a hammer can fix a broken dishwasher.

Here are some examples and potential pitfalls:

  1. Mediation
    Mediation goes in waves of being the popular go-to conflict resolution strategy and a box to be checked. Mediation is an outstanding conflict resolution tool, but it isn’t appropriate to put some parties through this process. If used in the wrong scenario, one or both parties can walk out harmed by the session and its outcomes. This can make real resolution to the conflict seem or be out of reach.
  1. Open-door Policies
    Open-door policies emerged when managers were attempting to create more transparent and conversational workplaces in which conflict was addressed at the most local level and became the de facto system for resolving any problems. Unfortunately, this policy works only for those bold enough to walk through that open door. Thus, many problems are left unknown and, therefore, unresolved.
  1. Arbitration
    Arbitration has become a boiler-plate feature of many contracts, employment and otherwise. It has its place, but often doesn’t meet some of the underlying needs of parties to have a stronger voice in the resolution of the conflict.
  1. Evaluations, Investigations and Fact-finding Processes
    Some organizations use evaluations/investigations/fact-finding processes as a means to resolve conflict. While good answers may come out of these types of processes, additional processes may need to be undertaken in order to build skills, address systemic conflict, and deal with underlying issues between individuals in the organization.

Interventions in conflict can do damage in some cases, when done inappropriately or ineffectively. Often, the best of intentions can lead to anything but the best outcomes.

Bernard Mayer, a prominent conflict writer and practitioner, writes, “the conflict resolution field has too often failed to address conflict in a profound or powerful way” and “this doesn’t mean abandoning old rules; rather, it means building on them and dramatically expanding what we offer to people in conflict.” (Mayer, Beyond Neutrality, 3). There are so many roles that great leaders, managers, human resource professionals, union representatives, etc. can play when problems arise between people.

I have been a part of conflicts where there was one difficult question that really needed to be asked. When the question was finally asked, it served as an intervention that led to resolution and even transformation; this can even occur after failed mediation sessions. Having a well-developed and broad spectrum of strategies and tools is helpful in addressing conflict in a tailored, appropriate way.

Habit #2: Trusting the Organization’s Selection of Conflict Process

Many people are unfamiliar with conflict processes, formal or informal. This is the case even when processes are agreed-upon terms of a contract or are part of an organization’s regular system for handling conflict. It can become a habit to use the standard conflict resolution process rather than spending the time to assess and ask the difficult questions to know what intervention they want and need.

Early on in my conflict career, a mentor once told me how she would often get calls asking for a mediator. They would explain the problem to her (people who aren’t versed in conflict resolution rarely portray their problems or issues as “conflicts”) and she would immediately start to ask them questions to better understand the story being told. The responses sometimes led her to the use of mediation. Sometimes though they led to her implementing some training for the organization, combined with a localized mediation for parties that might need and want it, and the establishment of some new processes to support the organization in the management of future conflict. Other times, the responses to her questions led her down a totally different path. No prescription was exactly the same, even if there were common strains among these organizational conflicts. Each intake conversation for a conflict led to a unique intervention or series of interventions to help the party or parties move forward.

Fostering good outcomes takes deliberative work that treats each conflict as something that can be understood better through best practices and a thorough attempt to assess the unique conflict at hand. Diving into well-developed tools, like the Wheel of Conflict (Bernard Mayer) and features of basic assessment outlined by Susskind and Jennifer Thomas-Larmer, partnered with curiosity and good communication skills, can help us to better understand all of the dynamics of a particular conflict. Then we can identify the best intervention to positively affect that particular conflict or problem and the people involved.

A harmed party may demand a certain process for handling a dispute. A friend or colleague may have gone that route before or they might want to use a process that was mentioned at a recent union meeting. Slowing down and doing an assessment before jumping into a process, even ones that the parties might be adamant that they need, is the first and most important step before jumping into an intervention.

Habit #3: Implementing a Process the Parties Do Not Understand

Sometimes conflict processes within organizations are so understood by those implementing them that they often leave the conflict parties in the dust. Meaning, the people in conflict feel like they are having processes done “to” them instead of “with” them. Time is limited (e.g. we only have two hours for this mediation session) and so we jump into the thick of it. As a result, people can feel uninformed, unsafe, and unsure about the process and consequently, they may not trust the outcome. This doesn’t mean that our processes have to be easy for people or not include consequences when legitimate wrongdoing has occurred. It just means that educating them and checking in with them before, during, and after processes is part of implementing good conflict interventions. This is how we can do processes “with” people.

I liken this to a doctor’s visit. It is much better to know what a doctor is doing to us when poking and prodding so that we understand the follow-up visits, the lab orders, and the after-care instructions. When people are in conflict, whether they present themselves as the victims or offenders, they are uncertain and maybe even a bit afraid. Part of supporting people through conflict is ensuring that they understand the process, and that we are modifying our processes to better suit their needs. Imagine asking someone working through coaching or a mediation, “How is this working for you?” and “How can I make this work better for you?”

In addition to informing those in conflict about the processes being undertaken, being nimble and adapting our processes to work for the parties can be essential in working through conflicts.

Breaking Bad Habits

We all know that bad habits are easy to form and hard to correct. It takes time and practice to develop the skills and the habits that lead to good results. To get started:

  • Slow down. Ask questions before beginning an intervention.
  • Utilize well-researched tools to analyze and assess the conflict to determine appropriate intervention(s).
  • Communicate clearly and “check in” often with the parties in conflict.
  • Get training to expand your conflict resolution toolset.

By taking these steps, you can maximize opportunities to resolve conflict and reach better outcomes, while also promoting more effective engagement in conflict and within teams (or with coworkers) on a daily basis.


About the Author

Joan Sabott
Joan is a facilitator for the Queen’s IRC Strategies for Workplace Conflicts program.
Joan Sabott is a practitioner, consultant, trainer, teacher, and coach in conflict engagement and resolution. Currently, she is an adjunct faculty at Creighton University in Omaha, NE, USA, on leadership and conflict. Joan is an Affiliated Practitioner and former Senior Program Manager with The Langdon Group. She has consulted on various projects in the organizational sector for businesses and public agencies, and on environmental projects in the substantive areas of water, transportation, and land use and planning. From one day (or hour) to the next, she is mediating, facilitating, coaching, advocating and providing impromptu training sessions on conflict-related topics. Joan holds a B.S.B.A. in History, a Certificate in Secondary Education, and a Masters in Negotiation and Dispute Resolution, all from Creighton University.




Mayer, B. S. (2004). Beyond neutrality: Confronting the crisis in conflict resolution. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Mayer, B. S. (2012). The Dynamics of Conflict: A Guide to Engagement and Intervention. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Susskind, L., McKearnan, S., & Thomas-Larmer, J. (1999). The consensus building handbook: A comprehensive guide to reaching agreement. London: Sage Publications.

4 Steps to Fix a Toxic Workplace

How do you fix a hostile workplace after a strike, merger or other polarizing event? How do you create a healthy workplace after a harassment or grievance investigation? It can be difficult to rebuild the trust that has been lost between members of a team or in leadership, or both. But, according to Anne Grant, a Queen’s IRC facilitator and workplace restoration specialist, you have to bring people back to a joint vision of what the workplace should be.

Is Your Workplace Toxic?

According to Anne, a toxic or poisoned workplace is a work environment where the work product is being affected by the dysfunction of the members of the team. Some signs and symptoms of a workplace that needs help could be an increase in grievances or sick time; it could be more people quitting or retiring; it could be difficulty in recruiting and retaining talent. But there are also more subtle signs, like apathy among workers or an increase in gossip or bullying.

“We have all kinds of processes for addressing a complaint,” says Anne. “But we don’t have as many processes for getting back to an ideal workplace after a complaint or polarizing event like a merger, strike or perhaps a big investigation.”

And that’s where a workplace restoration comes in. Whether it is addressing difficulties with management, a group of rogue employees spreading negativity through the office, or an issue that no one ever got around to investigating, a workplace restoration can help re-establish communication and trust in an organization.

Anne shares four steps to fix a toxic workplace:

1. Assessment

The first step is to figure out what’s really going on by doing an assessment of the situation. Why do we have a lack of trust? Why do we have apathy? Why do we have dysfunction?

Sometimes assumptions are made that are not quite correct, so the first step is always to find out what the actual issues are by talking directly to the staff. It could be dysfunctional team relations or team behaviour, which could include malicious gossip, bullying behaviours, or perhaps some members of the team just not getting along.  Another issue that often comes up is challenges with management practices. There may be a perception of favouritism, that management isn’t managing the workplace or that there’s a lack of planning. Perhaps there’s the perception of unfairness, that management isn’t managing the negative performers or correcting unacceptable behaviour.

A key part of the assessment piece is to communicate the process and be clear that it’s not an investigation. Perhaps a memo that says: “We have recognized that there are some challenges on this team. We are going to be doing a workplace assessment starting on this day. You will be able to complete a confidential survey and/or attend a confidential interview. Then the survey results and our plan will be released at a meeting next month.”

When completing the assessment, you might find that there are operational or technical issues, but most likely, you will find that there’s a lack of trust and communication.

Anne worked with a group of public works employees who drive snow plows. The initial information was that: “Oh, there’s a couple of guys, and they don’t get along with the new guys. It’s a millennial thing.” However, as she dug into the issue and spoke to the employees, she found that one of their biggest issues was that they didn’t feel like there was a plan for their department. They felt like everything they did was at the whim of the manager. George said: “You know, Frank and I are the only two guys that can drive the grader, and we’re pretty close to retirement, and we don’t see the plan for who’s going to get to drive the grader next.”

2. Plan

The second step is to make a plan to move forward. How are we going to fix this? Are we going to send the manager for sensitivity training? Are we going to give everybody a refresher on bullying? Are we going to work to model some effective workplace structures, like effective staff meetings and that sort of thing? What is the plan going to be?

In Anne’s example above with the snow plow drivers, the discovery of the real issues led to the development of a skills inventory being posted, so the workers knew who was certified to drive different pieces of equipment. It incorporated the seniority list, so it had senior employees at the top and junior employees at the bottom. Everyone could see who had what certifications, and then it could be used to plan who would be next to get training. Going straight down the seniority list wasn’t working, because George and Frank, who were at the top of the list and were the most senior guys, were going to be gone in the next year. The next person on the list, Sam, was already was certified in two other areas, and it didn’t make sense to certify him in the grader because he could only drive one piece of equipment at a time. Identifying some tangible issues meant that they were able to make an effective plan to work towards a more ideal workplace.

3. Implement the Plan

This is where the rubber hits the road in the process. Many times, organizations do the assessment and planning pieces, but the recommendations never get implemented.

One of the ways that a workplace restoration differs from a grievance investigation is that it’s not about disciplining the rogue employee(s) or manager; it’s about identifying what the ideal workplace looks like for that team, and figuring out how to make it happen.

A big part of the implementation is communicating to the staff what can and can’t be done, and why. “We’re going to do this this month. We’re going to do that next month. That recommendation that you made, it’s a great idea, but because of the regulations for our industry, we can’t implement it.” The workers need to know that they have been heard. Treating them like partners will help motivate desired behaviour.

Anne says while it’s important to acknowledge the injury in order to heal and move forward, the focus has to be on the ideal workplace and what steps can get you there. A key part of that process is education – it’s a good opportunity to remind people of expected and substandard behaviour, without blaming or singling out individuals. “One of the issues that was reported in the survey is some substandard behaviour. There’s noncompliance with our organizational code of conduct or with the Occupational Health and Safety Act.”

Anne recalls a workplace restoration experience at a coal yard. There were many complicated issues, but one of the workers said: “We need a Tim Horton’s down by the lagoon.” It turned out that a bunch of these guys worked outside down by the lagoon all day, with a Johnny on the spot and no access to a cafeteria. Everybody up in the main building had access to hot coffee, a cafeteria and real bathrooms. One of the things that they were able to implement as part of the workplace restoration was getting a coffee truck to come down to the lagoon at 9:00 in the morning and at 1:15 in the afternoon to sell them hot coffee. While there were big issues that were not easily fixed, this small step made the workers feel like they had been heard and contributed to creating a more ideal workplace. The coffee truck was bringing more than caffeine. It was bringing good will.

4. Evaluation

The final part of the process is a check-in. Anne recommends an evaluation in three months, six months, or a year, depending on the situation. This reminds the troops that their leaders haven’t forgotten about them, and it continues to engender trust and engagement from the staff. It also holds everyone accountable for maintaining the new processes and expected behaviours. People fall off the wagon after a while, and by completing an evaluation, it holds all parties accountable.


Queen’s IRC has introduced a new Workplace Restoration program, which will teach you how to address a toxic workplace to rebuild relationships and productivity.

5 Benefits of Workplace Conflict

It may seem like an oxymoron to have the words “benefit” and “conflict” in the same sentence. Our workplaces today often involve varying levels of interpersonal and institutional conflict and so much energy is devoted to prevention and management it is understandably difficult to understand how conflict could possibly have a positive side!

It helps to remember that conflict (including disagreement, difference of opinion, concern, complaint, friction, etc.) is not inherently good or bad.1  It is an inevitable result of human beings associating with each other in the world, in our families and in our workplaces.  There are many articles and blog posts trumpeting the “benefits of conflict” but, on reflection, this phrase is much too simplistic.  It is not the conflict that directly creates benefits, it is dealing with the conflict well.2 The key to unlocking the benefits of conflict is learning to engage effectively with conflict when it arises.

I have learned much about conflict and conflict engagement from Bernie Mayer. In his Queen’s IRC article The Paradox of Leadership: Cooperating to Compete, Following to Lead 3, he emphasizes that how we “set the stage for the effective use of conflict and how we respond to conflict is critical to our effectiveness as leaders”.  This is a leadership competency and these skills are becoming more and more in demand.  We can’t deny, avoid or prevent all conflict. So what can we, as leaders, do?  Bernie suggests what to some may be a revolutionary concept:

The more important challenge is to create the space for conflict to occur in a constructive way for people to raise difficult and contentious issues, and for leaders to be exposed to often uncomfortable disagreements.  Otherwise, problems fester, important views are squelched and effective communication is inhibited.

So there are good reasons NOT to allow conflict to fester, but what are the potential positive benefits that could flow from providing such a safe space for conflict to occur?

My research and experience has revealed many benefits from engaging well with conflict. Five of the most important benefits which relate to workplace conflict are:

1. Earlier Problem Identification

Workplace conflict can shine a light on deeper problems that need to be addressed.  Even the most seemingly trivial disagreements might stem from underlying unaddressed issues that, if not addressed, are likely to fester and then explode down the road.  Thoughtful managers can watch for patterns in the workplace and engage early with the involved staff before the workplace is disrupted by a full-fledged conflict.

Similarly, conflict can identify practices and processes that need to be improved or replaced.

2. Better Problem-Solving

The best ideas and solutions flow from healthy discussions involving a diversity of perspectives.4 But this goal can be difficult to attain.  It is challenging when our work colleagues disagree with our opinions or suggestions.  Different viewpoints can sometimes result in friction or even outright conflict.  Sometimes one or two voices tend to dominate discussions in the workplace leaving others without real opportunities to express their views at all.  These dynamics can lead to disengagement, poor buy-in and less than optimal solutions.

If staff members can learn to engage with these kinds of conflicts in constructive ways, then disagreements are not only normalized but can be seen to be an important piece of joint problem-solving.  If everyone feels comfortable expressing their views, more ideas are generated and differences of opinion become opportunities to hone and improve ideas into workable solutions.  These are critical life skills which can be applied in the workplace and beyond.  In addition, conflict engagement is an important leadership skill and employees who seek training and experience in this area may have better chances for advancement within the organization.

3. Healthy Relationships, Morale and Commitment

Conflict that is denied, avoided, suppressed or handled ineffectively can harm relationships.  Human beings can form inaccurate assumptions about the intentions of others which, unless surfaced and examined, can undermine important working relationships.  On the other hand, if staff feel comfortable raising differing views, concerns or complaints and they see that these are heard and respected by their peers and management then their relationships with each other and with the organization can be strengthened.

In one organization I was involved in, some members of a critical stakeholder group felt disenfranchised by a decision made by the organization that they argued didn’t take that group’s interests into account.  While initially denying their concerns and escalating the conflict, the organization was able to pivot by expressing willingness to participate in an open dialogue about the issues.  Three well-facilitated circle processes were held and were well attended. Participants reported that they felt their concerns were heard and respected.  The organization benefited from the healthy dialogue and relationships were strengthened.

4. Improved Productivity

There will likely be an investment of time and energy at the outset to prepare individuals and teams to recognize and engage well with various kinds of workplace conflict.  However, conflict that is handled well will free up people to focus on their jobs rather than tensions in the office which will lead to higher productivity, efficiency and effectiveness.

The most successful teams involve a diversity of backgrounds and approaches.  By virtue of their training and experience, many lawyers are “black hat thinkers” who tend to focus on risk and possible negative outcomes.  When we are trying to change things or encourage innovation and creativity this approach can be annoying.  Some team members may dislike having their ideas challenged in this way, which can cause discord.  However, a well-functioning team with training in effective conflict engagement can benefit from rigorous black hat and other types of thinking in order to hone and improve its ideas.

5. Personal Growth and Insight

Conflictual situations can help us to learn more about ourselves and others.  There is nothing like a difficult disagreement to reveal not only what we care about, but also our default approaches and reactions.  We may not always show up as our “best selves” when in the midst of a heated discussion or when confronted by stinging criticism.  However, in each of these situations, if we are open to it, then there is likely to be an important insight about ourselves that is worthy of learning.  Self-awareness is the first step to managing ourselves better in the future.

We can learn about our work colleagues in the midst of conflict.  It may be helpful to know, in advance, how they react in certain situations and to take that information into account when we are working with them in the future.

If I look back on my life so far, I realize that much of my greatest learning came not from those moments of peace and tranquility (although they were lovely!) but from experiences of conflict with others, including colleagues in the workplace.  By reflecting on those experiences I have realized that my personality (or perhaps my legal training) led me to be defensive and unaware of my many blind spots.  Self-awareness then led me to a determination to unlearn some responses and to nurture other (more healthy) approaches.  I am still a work in process but I am grateful for those difficult conflictual experiences.

Conflict is hard.  Imagine rather than expending our energy and time avoiding or “preventing” conflict, you, your team or your organization could welcome conflict, knowing that you have the tools and skills to harness multiple benefits from engaging with conflict well.  The good news is that these skills can be learned and, if you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to seek out training to support your efforts.  You will not be sorry.


About the Author

Kari BoyleKari Boyle is a conflict management practitioner, mediator, trainer consultant and retired lawyer.  She served as Executive Director of Mediate BC Society for ten years followed by one year as its Director of Strategic Initiatives.  She has a particular interest in effective conflict engagement, access to justice and system change and recently completed her term as Project Manager for Mediate BC’s “Family Unbundled Legal Services Project”. She is currently Coordinator of the BC Family Justice Innovation Lab, a member of the Access to Justice BC Leadership group and a Board member of the Courthouse Library Society of BC.

Kari was also a facilitator for the Queen’s IRC Strategies for Workplace Conflicts program.




1  With the exception of conflict resulting from behaviour which is violent or abusive.

2  The opposite is also true: conflict can be harmful if it is not dealt with effectively.  “Dealing well with conflict” will look different in each situation.  Sometimes it means helping the parties to reach a full resolution; sometimes it is necessary to escalate a conflict in order to make important social change. A boycott, protest or strike is an example of this dynamic.

3 Mayer, B. (2016). The Paradox of Leadership: Cooperating to Compete, Following to Lead. Queen’s University IRC.  Retrieved November 15, 2017 from 

4 Rock, D. & Grant, H. (2016, November 4). Why Diverse Teams are Smarter. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved November 15, 2017, from

The Paradox of Leadership: Cooperating to Compete, Following to Lead

 Cooperating to Compete, Following to Lead

For most of my adult life I lived at the foot of the Rocky Mountains (the Colorado ones), and I have frequently led family, children, and others on hiking, ski touring, and mountain biking trips. I wasn’t mostly the formal leader (and others in my family may dispute this characterization), but I often felt that it was my responsibility to make sure we got to where we intended to get to, when we intended to, safely. Almost always, the best position for me to take to make sure we stayed together, that those who needed help or encouragement received it, and that the needs of the group were attended to, was at the back of the pack.

“Leading from behind” is a natural approach in the outdoors. It is natural in organizations too. It may sound like a passive or ineffective way to approach the challenge of being an effective leader, but I found, both in the outdoors and in organizational leadership positions, that this is the most powerful way to guide a group. The idea of leading from behind is not a new one for organizations or for communities,(1) but learning how to do this, particularly in a hierarchical structure, is no easy matter. One key dimension of this is defined by our approach to conflict. How we set the stage for the effective use of conflict and how we respond to conflict is critical to our effectiveness as leaders and to our capacity to “lead from behind.”(2)

Human Rights and Human Wrongs: Our Continuing Need to Teach

 Our Continuing Need to TeachFrancine had been disciplined before. She had been suspended for 3 days, for an angry outburst that she had in the shipping department. But this time was worse.

Francine was in the cafeteria, finishing her break. Three co-workers sat down at the same table, and within minutes she began yelling and swearing at them. One of them began talking to her, trying to quiet her down. She threw her cup of tea in his face, and then left the room.

Francine was terminated. The letter of termination cited the company anti-violence and harassment policies.

The most interesting piece of the story arose during mediation, when the grievor told the mediator that she didn’t have a problem with anger – she had a problem with the Filipino employees who were working in the plant. “They are all so tight, always together, and they are taking all the jobs in the plant. None of my nephews, and none of my friends’ kids are getting the new jobs…”

This is not just a problem with anger management. This is a problem with racism. Canadian workplaces are full of it.

Mark was new to the parks department. He was thrilled with his new job, and wanted nothing more than to work outside. He was fond of his co-workers, with whom he enjoyed regular Twitter banter about just about anything that came to mind. He commented on the breast size of the girls in the park, and on his view that the non-white cohort of the workforce worked at a slower pace than he and his buddies.

He laughed when one of his co-workers, a black female, replied to one of his tweets by calling him a major jerk. He laughed when she filed a grievance, asserting that he was poisoning the workplace with his offensive Twitter activity, and demanding that management take steps to prohibit the behaviour.

He didn’t laugh when he was suspended from work, pending investigation of the grievance.

This is not just a case of “boys will be boys.” This is discrimination on the grounds of sex and race. Canadian workplaces are full of it.

Angel had twenty years’ service with the company, and was pleased to see the posting for dispatcher. He applied immediately, confident that after all those years, he was going to see a less physical, more predictable, and slightly more prestigious position. When he learned that his competition for the job was the new kid – the one who limps – he lost it. His rant included comments about the “rookie cripple” and the “lousy gimp.”

Angel not only lost his bid for the dispatcher job; he was disciplined for violation of the company human rights policy.

This is not just a case of conflict between seniority and human rights principles, it is discrimination against those with disabilities. Canadian workplaces are full of it.

Consider the implications

A workplace in which there are human rights issues and conflicts can expect the following problems:

  • Individuals experience pain and genuinely suffer
  • Employees who are victims of discrimination work poorly and eventually get sick
  • Employer reputation is threatened or impaired
  • When workplace poisoning occurs over social media, the image of that workplace is immediately broadcast widely, without geographic boundaries. Global efforts become global embarrassments.
  • There are hostile feelings among employees
  • Groups and cliques of employees form
  • Individuals and groups become marginalized
  • Hostilities flare up from time to time, raising threats of and actual violence
  • Union executive become burdened
  • Time and effort are invested in individual conflicts
  • The relationship between the union and management suffers
  • Money is spent on external resources – investigators, lawyers, mediators, arbitrators

Individual conflicts might be resolved, but systemic discrimination often remains as a fertile ground for the next individual conflict.

We Have the Resources

Human rights legislation is not new to Canadian workplaces in any jurisdiction. We have a rich history of meaningful anti-discrimination legislation. We have huge bodies of jurisprudence breathing vigour into the statutes. Our collective agreements have come to recognize, respect and embrace human rights principles. We have proactive human rights commissions that provide accessible and practical resources to individuals, unions and employers. We have human rights and anti-discrimination policies by the truckload in every workplace in the land. There is no shortage of educational programming, of policy reviewing, of posters in lunchrooms.

But the Problem Remains

Yet there remains, I respectfully argue, a continuing cloud of discrimination in Canadian workplaces. Discrimination continues to poison the lives of individual employees, burden our unions, bog down our management teams, and over-employ our lawyers, mediators and arbitrators.

It continually surprises me, in the course of practising mediation and arbitration, how frequently these issues arise in our workplaces. How pervasive the problem is.

Part of the difficulty, of course, is that although some of us have invested our entire professional lives learning, teaching and fighting human rights issues, every time a workplace welcomes a new employee, that workplace opens its doors to a new influence. That new influence is not likely to have had the benefit of all of that learning, any of that teaching, or any of that fighting.

The challenge of fighting discrimination arises anew every time we hire a new employee.

The task of teaching what human rights are, what discrimination is, and what is and is not permitted in the workplace is a critical task that must be brought alive with every new hire. It is a task that requires vigilant attention. It is a task that is worth repeating and refreshing.

It is Our Responsibility to Teach

With few exceptions, high schools do not teach fundamental human rights concepts. With few exceptions, and unless students pursue specific training, undergraduate university curricula do not include the teaching of fundamental human rights concepts. With few exceptions, career programs and professional schools such as nursing and teaching, do not teach fundamental human rights concepts.

The ultimate responsibility to teach human rights concepts, to explain what discrimination is and why it is prohibited by law, falls upon the employer and the union.

At the risk of repeating a point – when the employer takes on a new hire, when the union welcomes a new member, the likelihood is that although this person has heard of a “human rights code”, they have absolutely no familiarity with it. They are not familiar with its principles. More importantly, they are not familiar with what behaviour is and is not allowed in the workplace. Even with those who have some fundamental training in human rights concepts, there is often a “disconnect” between their appreciation of the concept, and their ability to see what behaviours are and are not discriminatory.

I will go so far as to say that with some frequency, even those have been engaged in management roles or union responsibilities require fundamental education in human rights concepts and practical application of those concepts. In teaching human rights principles at Queen’s IRC, we are constantly impressed with the light bulbs appearing over the heads of those who have been familiar with human rights lingo for years, but have never quite appreciated how the words apply.

In the classroom, seasoned managers are still seen rolling their eyes over the challenge and cost of, for example, accommodating the employee disabled by alcoholism, addressing the needs of a parent whose disabled kid contributes to attendance issues, or coping with the conflicts caused by the gender-shift surgery. Our instructors remind them that human rights protections reflect the deeply held values of Canadian society, delivered as a result of democratic legislative process.

Human rights codes are not stable or one-off enactments. They change from time to time, as the norms and values of the community shift. Forty years ago we did not consider gender a characteristic worthy of workplace respect. Thirty years ago we did not consider alcoholism or drug addiction to be a disability. Twenty years ago we did not consider sexual orientation worthy of protection, family status an issue of workplace concern, or transgendered identity a choice worthy of dignity. As the norms and values of our culture shift, so do our human rights codes and their requirements.

Human rights codes, at their core, reflect the reasons that most of our ancestors came to Canada. They continue to be part of the reason that those from less peaceful parts of the world still make that journey.

So What is the Answer?

It is critical that employers and unions continue to embrace their responsibilities to learn and teach fundamental human rights concepts. It is critical that we continue to teach managers and supervisors what the principles are and how they apply to day to day behaviours. It is critical that each new hire receives a meaningful education about what discrimination means and how the rules apply in their workplace.

No, it is not sufficient to hand a new hire a copy of the human rights policy, and ask them to initial it. That is not teaching – that is mere administration.

No, it is not enough to call employees or members together once every few years to hear someone talk about human rights ideals. That is not teaching either.

No, it is not enough to post the results of the latest arbitration award or court decision that affected your workplace, and have employees learn from the mistakes of others. That may be teaching, but it is very expensive teaching.

How to Teach?

Adults learn from reading, listening, discussing, and then practicing. We have to have an opportunity to absorb the information, and then to apply it. We need the lessons, but then we need to learn how to implement them. We have to practice the lessons. We need to translate the human rights lingo into every day words and actions.

Classrooms, seminars, workshops, on-site sessions, and role play opportunities are essential pieces of in-house training systems for all employees. Adult students must be required to feed the information back to the instructor, in order to break the learning barrier. Human rights training in any environment must be interactive. Examples of behaviours that are and are not appropriate must be provided – again and again.

Managers, supervisors and union executive require clear opportunities to learn what is and is not permissible behaviour. Although front line workers require a degree of human rights training, a workplace culture will not be affected and improved unless managers, supervisors and union executive have a firm grip on the concepts, and are ready to model behaviour appropriately.

We have to teach employees, managers and supervisors appropriate intervention and behavioural correction when others commit acts of discrimination.  Counselling must accompany progressive discipline in this area. (Discipline alone is a poor teacher, as perpetrators become defensive and denying.) This is a tough area to teach in-house. It should include some awareness of “difficult conversations” and skillful feedback.

Just as workplaces assess the risk of workplace violence by surveying their employees, the practice of repeated surveying for discriminatory behaviours and workplace poisoning is advised. Regular scrutiny will track shifting sensibilities, enabling policies and practices to shift as well.

Finally, an acute awareness of human rights in the workplace will translate into a practice of never missing an opportunity. Any time employees gather in one place is a good time to remind them that this workplace, and this union, reflect certain values, and that their behaviour, day in and day out, is a reflection of those values.

There is no downside to getting passionate about human rights in your workplace. It is individuals who affect change, and the small steps that influence the larger shifts.  Train and empower one person to be the advocate for the human rights high ground. It is a valuable investment, and one that will return human rewards.

About the Author

Elaine Newman, Arbitrator and Mediator, Queen's IRC FacilitatorElaine Newman, Ba, LL.B., LL.M., was called to the bar in Ontario in 1979. Elaine is a very experienced full-time arbitrator and mediator, specializing in labour relations, employment, and human rights matters. She is a teacher, an author, and frequent speaker on labour, employment and human rights issues. Elaine served as Associate Director of the LLM program in Labour Relations and Employment Law at Osgoode Hall Law School 2002 to 2008. She was lead instructor for the Advanced Dispute Resolution Course at Atkinson Faculty, York University for ten years, where she taught the Ethics of Mediation course, and the Advanced Practicum course. She is a frequent guest speaker at Queen’s IRC programs, and is lead instructor of the Strategic Grievance Handling program. Elaine is the author of the online course, “Practical Ethics for Working Mediators”, offered by the ADR Institute of Ontario.  Her textbook, Preventing Violence in the Workplace, is published by Lancaster House, Toronto.

Building the Blue Team: Using Conflict Management Concepts with Canadian Forces Personnel Overseas

 Using Conflict Management Concepts with Canadian Forces Personnel Overseas“Running a war seems to consist of making plans and then ensuring that all those destined to carry them out don’t quarrel with each other instead of the enemy.”
– Field Marshal Alan Francis Brooke, 1st Viscount Alanbrooke. KG, GCB, OM, GCVO, DSO and Bar, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, 1941 to 1946

“We could handle being shot at by the enemy…that was to be expected. What we don’t accept is how we were being treated within our own unit and so much in-fighting.”
– Canadian soldier, Afghanistan Post-mission Decompression Interview, 2007


This article will discuss how familiar private and public employment sector conflict management concepts, practices and training were applied and adapted by the Department of National Defence’s Conflict Management Program to prepare military units and individuals for the exigencies of overseas operations. In particular, it details the experience and level of success of implementing interest-based conflict management tools into teams deploying for overseas missions.

Meet the Blue Team and the Red Team

In war games, exercises and military operations, the contesting sides are often designated as the “Blue Team”, the friendly forces – our own and our Allies, and as the “Red Team”, the opposing forces or enemy.

The Blue Team does not derive its strength solely through the weight of numbers or through superior weapons and technology. The Team’s morale, cohesion and confidence in itself, each other member, and its leaders, are all key human dimensions factors which contribute to a decisive, and cost-effective, war-winning pre-condition: unquestioned mutual reliance or trust. When the Department of National Defence’s Conflict Management Program started, we believed that conflict management tools which supported the development and strengthening of trust within individuals and units comprising the Blue Team, would increase their level of mission success and reduce the human cost.

The Six Levels of Workplace Health

The theory of “workplace health” can be best described by comparing a workplace to a human being. As humans, our health is often affected by the choices we make regarding diet, exercise, stress and generally the way we choose to live our lives. Poor diet, excessive stress, lack of sleep, lack of exercise and destructive behaviours such as alcohol and drug abuse can often lead to poor health.

The same can be said of a workplace’s health. Often workplaces exhibit behaviours which are indicative of poor conflict management, leading to unfair decisions, a high turnover rate, and unproductive workplaces.

In this article, we consider the concept of “workplace health” and the consequences of poor workplace health upon the success of the organization.

Figure 1 is a model called the “WFI Workplace Health Theory: Six Levels of Workplace Health”. It describes both constructive and destructive workplace behaviours as well as reactive and proactive responses to conflict. By comparing these two elements we have identified six levels of workplace conflict health.

Figure 1 – WFI Workplace Health Theory: Six Levels of Workplace Health

 Six Levels of Workplace Health

While most workplaces may show signs of each of these workplace health levels, more productive, engaging and positive workplace environments focus upon the top three levels of workplace health. These levels are purposefully prioritized to symbolize their desirability. In other words, the most healthy workplaces are those that concentrate on “holistic constructive” approaches while the least healthy workplaces exhibit “active destructive” behaviours. The goal of any workplace should be to move toward holistic, constructive approaches and away from active destructive behaviours.

Conflict Behaviours

Organizations, like human beings, are complex organisms. Humans may get up in the morning, have a balanced nutritious breakfast, go for a jog, then smoke cigarettes and drink coffee all day, and consume alcohol for much of the evening. In other words, humans have destructive and constructive behaviours. Some humans have more or less of each, but it is fair to say that most humans practice both types of behaviours.

The same can be said about organizations and “conflict behaviours”. An organization may invest considerable resources and effort into a peer mediation program, and then allow abusive behaviours from their management team because it produces short term results.

Typical Destructive Behaviours

Many workplaces engage in some types of destructive behaviours. Some of the most observable destructive behaviours are:

  • Bullying
  • Harassment
  • Discrimination
  • Favouritism
  • Lawlessness
  • Unfair decisions
  • Excessive bottom line focus
  • Excessive “victory” focus
  • Lack of concern for individuals
  • Harsh and unfair punishments

While there are some workplaces that exhibit these behaviours directly and in abundance, many other workplaces have more subtle and nuanced versions of these destructive behaviours. For example, the employee who might be a little different or is not someone’s best friend is not selected for the promotion. The employee is not considered a “team player”.

A good example of institutionalized destructive behaviour was Enron’s performance management policy. They had what is commonly referred to as the “rank and yank” method of succession planning. They would annually rank their employees from 1 to 100. Then they would draw a line at a certain percentile and fire employees who did not meet reach that percentile.

This encouraged all the destructive behaviours mentioned above. In a rush to the top, workplace participants would do anything necessary to make themselves look good and make others look bad. The excessive bottom line focus drove employees to lie to survive and this created a culture of extreme unfairness. Needless to say, this was one of the reasons for the massive implosion of the company. It is a good example of a Level 1 — Active Destructive corporate health culture.

Many organizations wallow in the destructive side of workplace health. They always suffer — sometimes in very severe ways. As estimated in the Corporate Leavers Survey conducted for the Level Playing Field Institute in 2007, two million professionals leave their jobs every year in the United States solely because of a perception that the organization will not treat them fairly.

And this just one of five responses to a culture of unfairness in the workplace; most of which are negative and damaging to the workplace culture and those within it. These responses include (see Figure 2 below):

  • External Exit (i.e. leave the organization)
  • Internal Exit (i.e. absenteeism, presenteeism)
  • Assimilate (i.e. become abusive)
  • Challenge (i.e. try to combat the unfairness)
  • Head Down (i.e. come into work and keep your head down — don’t work any harder than you have to, to keep your job)

There is only one of those responses that can produce positive results for the organization — the “challenge” response. This response is usually made by employees with a high level of loyalty to the organization and a strong self-confidence in their employment options. This employee seeks to move the culture away from destructive behaviours and towards constructive behaviours. Three of the other four responses — “external exit”, “internal exit” and “head down” — allow an organization to entrench its destructive behaviour through lack of direct challenge. The fifth response, “assimilation”, actively supports and encourages destructive behaviours. These people “assimilate” into the culture of unfairness and become active participants, thinking that this is the way to get along and get ahead in this organization.

Figure 2: The Head-Down Theory: Zones of Engagement

 Zones of Engagement

Active, Passive and Reactive Destructive Behaviours

As noted in the Six Levels of Workplace Health model (Figure 1), we have identified three types of destructive behaviours. Active Destructive behaviours are the most obvious and damaging to workplace health. These include bullying, discrimination, violence and harassment. They can also include institutionalized unfairness like the “rank and yank” model of performance management and succession planning. We would call this “Level One Behaviour” as it is considered the most damaging to the organization’s health.

There are also Passive Destructive behaviours, like lawlessness, and what we call the “bottom-line fetish” (i.e. sacrificing the conflict health of the organization in the interests of immediate economic performance), and generally a lack of concern for individuals in the workplace. These passive behaviours promote active destructive behaviours. In a lawless organization, for example, active destructive behaviours tend to take hold as people fight for their own survival and advancement without regard to fair rules and fair decision-making. We call this “Level Two Behaviour” because it indirectly promotes Level One behaviours.

The third level of workplace health is called Reactive Destructive. These behaviours are more commonly associated with excessive command and control, or top-down cultures. They are typified by harsh and unfair punishments, excessive concern for legal liability and an undue focus on employee obedience rather than employee contribution. While organizations that are typified by such behaviour may discourage bullying and discrimination, and they certainly will have rules, they tend to be too heavy-handed and patriarchal — thus leaving employees with a sense of fear throughout their working lives. We refer to these as “Level Three Behaviours”.

Constructive Behaviours and Responses

The top three levels of Workplace Health consider constructive behaviours and constructive responses to conflict. In ascending order we call these three levels “Reactive Constructive”, “Preventative Constructive” and “Holistic Constructive”, the highest level.

The Fourth Level of Workplace Health is dominated by Reactive Constructive behaviours and responses to conflict. Examples of Reactive Constructive approaches might be: fair and balanced dispute resolution decision-making, mediation, fair investigation processes. These approaches focus upon dealing with conflict as it arises. While we consider these approaches constructive, they are also mostly reactive in nature. They do not arise until the conflict has already happened. Additionally, they are mostly focused on dealing with the conflict at hand. These approaches can be helpful in dealing with the symptoms of an unhealthy organization — but they are not always useful at addressing the underlying causes.

To better understand the limitations of Reactive Constructive approaches to dealing with workplace issues, it is helpful to consider the Conflict Transformations theory advanced by Rubin, Pruitt and Kim in their book Social Conflict. In charting the course of conflict in large scale international disputes, the authors concluded that conflict takes on five transformations:

  • The first transformation involves the efforts that people use to get their way in a conflict. They start out as light tactics to influence the other side and steadily progress to heavier often threatening tactics.
  • The second transformation concerns the issues involved in the conflict. The issue might start out as small and singular in nature, but they proliferate as the conflict continues.
  • The third transformation involves the attribution theory. The parties start with a focus upon the issues themselves, but the conflict then transforms to conflict about the personalities and dispositions of the other side.
  • The fourth transformation involves the goals of the parties in conflict. The parties might begin with a goal of doing well in the conflict or getting the matter dealt with quickly and efficiently. As the conflict continues unabated, the goals of the parties start to transform at first from doing well to winning and finally to hurting the other side.
  • The fifth transformation relates to who the conflict affects. At the start, the conflict might only be between two parties, but as it continues other parties must get involved. At its extreme (like the Arab-Israeli conflict) the world is drawn in on this conflict.

Whether the conflict is on the international stage or in the workplace, the transformations take on the same character. What seems an insignificant matter between two parties is morphed into an uncontrollable conflict that affects many people and can have dire consequences for all involved. It is for this reason that Reactive Constructive measures are considered to result in a lower level of workplace health than more proactive measures. By the time the reactive measure is invoked, there has already been considerable conflict transformation and the health of the workplace has already suffered — sometimes irreparably. This is why progressive workplaces are considering more proactive measures.

The Fifth Level of Workplace Health — Preventative Constructive — is indicative of generally proactive measures for dealing with workplace conflict. Workplaces which are predominately at this level of workplace health tend to concern themselves with forward thinking as it relates to conflict and unfairness. In such workplaces, strategies will be developed to forecast and account for potential sources, and they will devise strategies to minimize the likelihood of conflict taking place. Preventative Constructive measures can include training and development of staff, managers, and human resources professionals, on how best to deal with conflict and make fair and consistent decisions. There will also be thoughtful, balanced and well researched policies in place that guide workplace participants through conflict situations, and policies that inform workplace participants how to avoid unnecessary conflict. Conflict coaching, when used thoughtfully, can be a Preventative Constructive measure. Where workplace individuals are identified as “in need of coaching”, and where the conflict coach is called well in advance of major conflict to help those in need, this has a preventative quality for future conflict.

The advantage of a Preventative Constructive approach is that much conflict and unfairness is forecasted and managed up front before it occurs. Workplaces that devote resources to training, good policy making, and thoughtful processes tend to moderate the transformations of conflict we discussed earlier. These workplaces are more fair, healthy and conflict-free than those that rely upon reactive approaches.

The sixth and highest level of workplace health is called Holistic Constructive. Like the previous level, the Holistic Constructive level focuses on proactive approaches for managing workplace health. What distinguishes the Holistic Constructive level from the Preventative Constructive level, is that Holistic Constructive workplaces seek to integrate conflict management and fairness into the very business of the workplace. Such workplaces are keen on organizational analysis, considering the impact of all processes, policies, procedures and decisions upon the health of the workplace.

The consistent view of Holistic Constructive workplaces is that healthy workplaces are wealthy workplaces. A clear line is drawn between health and success for such organizations. Typically, such organizations rely upon constant feedback from participants and are committed to continuous improvement in the way they deal with human issues. The goal is to engage workplace participants to play a positive role in engendering workplace health as well as wealth. Thus, while generally the responsibility falls upon “management” to ensure workplace health at the lower levels, at the Holistic Constructive Level this responsibility is openly and eagerly shared with each workplace participant through feedback forums, training and development, appreciative enquiry and thoughtful planning.


This model should be used as a diagnostic tool to help assess the overall level of workplace conflict health. Organizations that encourage constructive behaviours and discourage destructive behaviours are generally more productive an innovative. Employees are generally more engaged in their work and tend to be more interested in the success of the organization. This tool should be used to help identify negative and positive behaviours and to encourage proactive approaches to managing the workplace.

About the Author

Blaine DonaisBlaine Donais (B.A., LL.B., LL.M., RPDR, C. Med.) is President and Founder of the Workplace Fairness Institute. Blaine is a labour lawyer and an expert in labour/management facilitations, mediation, and investigation. He teaches human resources professionals, labour leaders and others in areas such as human rights, labour and employment law, human resources, collective bargaining and conflict resolution.

Blaine is author of Workplaces That Work: A Guide to Conflict Management in Union and Non-Union Work Environments (Carswell, 2006), and of Engaging Unionized Employees (Carswell, 2010) and Workplace Mediation (Carswell, upcoming 2014). Blaine is an Adjunct Professor of Workplace Conflict Management, and Advanced Mediation Academic Director at York University. He also teaches at the Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources at the University of Toronto and at Royal Roads University.


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