Jerry Osteryoung: Conflict in the workplace

December 20, 2013 

The people to fear are not those who disagree with you, but those who disagree with you and are too cowardly to let you know.

-- Napoleon Bonaparte

No matter how much time and energy you spend on team building, conflicts in the workplace are inevitable. People are people, and disagreements are just going to happen.

In a recent study, top CEOs were asked what their major issues are, and number one on the list was -- you guessed it -- managing conflict.

Some managers just like to pretend that conflict does not exist, but doing so only exasperates the problem. When left alone, conflict festers and grows until it becomes almost unmanageable.

Bottom line is dealing with conflict is your job as a leader, and if you are going to be effective in your role, you cannot shy away from it. Many are uncomfortable with conflict, but a good leader learns how to embrace it and address it head on.

I think most conflict is caused by a lack of communication or when emotions swamp out reason.

When communications are lacking, people can make erroneous assumptions. For example, two employees were vying for the same job. Somewhere along the way, one heard that the other was going to be selected, which triggered major friction.

To avoid this situation, all management had to do was keep both employees in the loop on where they were in the selection process and how long it would be before they had a decision. Without adequate information, our minds play tricks on us.

As in just about all areas

of business and management, the more you communicate, the more effectively you are able to lead. When you do not communicate clearly and often, conflicts arise.

In my mind, emotions are the culprit in the majority of workplace conflicts. Right in the middle of it all, fanning the flames, is our ego. Some people have very little control over their egos, and the results can be explosive when egos override good behavior. Our egos always have to be right, and when they are not, they throw tantrums like a child.

With one firm I was helping, a manager and an employee were not getting along at all. The employee felt strongly (emotion) that her boss was not showing her enough respect, and the supervisor felt that the employee was just too sensitive.

Though the conflict started out small, it grew out of control because the supervisor's boss refused to intervene. Eventually, both employees -- and they were both great employees -- wanted to quit as they could not stand one another.

It took counseling and some serious discussions to get them on the right path. They will never be close friends, but I was able to get them to a place where they can tolerate one another in the workplace and be productive.

In next week's column, I will go into more depth about how to handle conflict once you recognize you have a situation in your workplace.

Jerry Osteryoung, a consultant to businesses, is the Jim Moran professor of entrepreneurship (emeritus) and professor of finance (emeritus) at Florida State University. He can be reached by email at

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