How to Deal with with High Conflict in your Workplace

In the wake of a reading a multitude of recent media articles that featured details of a high conflict employee disputes running for long durations, I decided to review literature on high conflict in the workplace.  

Just how much is extreme conflict impacting organisational performance?

Is employee conflict the result of employee frustration or employer performance mishandling?            

How to deal with High Conflict in your workplace Contact On the Table
How to deal with High Conflict in your workplace Contact On the Table

First and foremost, workers at all levels must learn to accept conflict as an inevitable part of the work environment – recent studies have found that an overwhelming majority of employees at all levels experience conflict to some degree. The question for management is not whether it can be avoided or mitigated; but rather how conflict is dealt with when is occurs. If managed improperly, businesses’ productivity, operational effectiveness, and morale take a major hit. This data was demonstrated in a European study commissioned by CPP Inc. & OPP, Ltd in 2008, where 27 percent of employees witnessed conflict transform into a personal attack. A further 25 percent said that the avoidance of conflict resulted in personal sickness or absence from work.

Conflict can lead to positive outcomes, such as a better understanding of others, improved solutions to problems or challenges, and major innovation. Roughly three quarters of workers reported positive outcomes that resulted from conflict. It could be questioned  however, whether these results would not have been produced if conflict was not initiated. And how do you achieve a positive outcome when faced with a conflict?  On the other side of the conflict coin are negative outcomes which can affect personal morale, confidence and work success sometimes for a duration of time.

So how can you manage working with a difficult person in your immediate work environment?

You may be working with a difficult person who is your manager, peer, staff member or a senior Managerial member. Regardless of their position in the organisation and their relationship with you, here are some tips to avoid triggering their high conflict behaviours, helping them develop a positive mindset. This information could provide you with the foundation for establishing a more productive positive future relationship with this person.

Why are difficult people so hard to work with?

Difficult people often maintain unrealistic expectation of their peers, superiors and reports; this is due to their lack of personal awareness. When conflict or a disagreement occurs they are often unsure about how to resolve the problem and often their high conflict behaviours may have caused or aggravated the situation.

Their traits include:

  • Rigid and uncompromising thinking and activities;
  • An incapability to accept or heal from loss,
  • Emotionally negative thinking,
  • An inability to reflect on their own behaviour
  • A difficulty empathising with others
  • An inclination to blame others.

You may first become aware that you are working with a difficult person when they angrily confront you with a lot of accusations about how you have made their life difficult. You may be tempted to respond in kind or to answer each of their claims, but don’t. Reacting angrily to a difficult person is likely to trigger even more high conflict behaviour from them as they become increasingly defensive. Remember they are unlikely to be self-aware and cannot see the situation from your perspective.

Responding to misinformation

Difficult people are good at casting themselves in the role of victim and getting others to argue in their defence.

Here are some points that you might want to keep in mind if you find yourself in a situation:

Ignore the difficult person’s misinformation when it doesn’t involve anyone else:

The difficult person may have an opinion about you that is wrong and unlikely to change even after you have talked it over with them. Ignore their opinions.

Respond quickly to misinformation that is shared in your workplace:

The difficult person may copy other people into the accusatory email they send to you. They may post you a letter with cc; to others or they may belittle you in meetings with your manager. In these situations you must respond quickly to the misinformation. Silence can be mistaken for agreement. Respond in the same media as the original communication; for example, an email in response to an email. Be friendly, brief, informative and firm.

Analyse your realistic options

It is easier to think about options calmly and logically when you are not in the heat of the moment. There may be a number of possible solutions to your problem but some will be more realistic than others. Write down three to ten options that occur to you and then analyse each one in turn. Decide on the one or two options that have the greatest potential to solve your problem. Talk it over with friends, mentor or other people you trust before taking action. Your options will depend on where you sit in the organisation and your formal relationship with the difficult person. Options must be realistic and capable of being implemented.

Set limits

There are a number of strategies, perhaps after testing them out with a mentor or trusted colleague:

Being assertive:  Speaking to the difficult person in a confident, self-assured and positive way will set the right tone for your interactions with them. Set limits firmly and establish the rules of the relationship and consequences for breaking them. The consequences must be within your power to follow through on.

Using power: Everyone has power. Some have power because of the authority their role gives them. Others can refer to the authority that their organisation’s policies give to their actions. It’s important not to give people more power than they deserve. You can set limits on a difficult person’s behaviour by limiting your contact with them or limiting what you will discuss with them. For example, you might only meet with the difficult person when others are present such as in a team meeting, or you might keep your meetings with them brief and business like. You can encourage them to stop doing something by saying: ‘if you don’t do this, then I will do that’ or encourage them to do something by saying: ‘if you do this, then I will do that’. For example, you might say: ‘Let’s sit down and discuss which tasks we each prefer to do, then we can decide how to divide up the work’. You are effectively saying: ‘If you stop complaining about work, then I will consider doing some of the tasks you don’t like doing’.

Or you might say: ‘If you continue working on the project during my holiday break, then I will take on the remaining tasks when I return’. You are effectively saying: ‘If you are more flexible, then I will also be flexible’.

 Challenging the behaviour:    Acknowledge that you have been unfairly attacked by the difficult person, even if it is only to yourself. If you feel confident to do so, challenge their behaviour towards you. Pick the time and place carefully. Describe the specific behaviour you object to and how you would like to be treated instead.

Focusing on solving the problem: Keep the difficult person in the right frame of mind by getting them to think about how their problem could be solved in the future rather than criticising the past.

Decide what you want from the relationship

Ultimately you will need to decide on the type of relationship you want to have with the person and whether the relationship is worth the effort. Your employer may have a similar decision to make but has additional powers including the power to discipline, the ability to reassign staff to other work and terminate their employment.

You have three options when working with a difficult person. You can manage your relationship with them, reduce your relationship or phase it out altogether:

  • Manage the relationship: By practising the tips in this guide you will develop the skills and confidence to manage your relationship with the difficult person. Ignore the emotional hooks, don’t criticise the past, keep focussed on the future. Refer to policies that validate your actions and focus on logical reasoning.
  • Reduce the relationship: If the difficult person has skills that you admire or are important to the organisation and your work, then you might want to limit your contact with them to times when you can work together productively.
  • Phase the relationship out: A difficult person is likely to feel rejected if you try to avoid opportunities to work or converse with them. They may try to talk you out of your decision or punish you for it. Give them the time they need to process and accept change. In time they will be reconciled to your decision.

On the Table helps people & teams have conversations.

On the Table encourages people and organisations’ to connect and to have dialogue in a way that is meaningful and constructive.

At On the Table we believe in:

  • Constructive conflict resolution and effective mediation
  • Resolving conflict through constructive conversation & dialogue
  • Conflict management coaching
  • You could benefit by using a mediation and conflict management coaching specialist

Contact On the Table



  1. Like this article, although I am not sure about last point – phasing the relationship out – as this is very often not an option. I would also be concerned that this would be an approach taken by some, and the results could be disastrous and it can appear as if the problem is being ignored

    • John,
      Thanks for the valuable comment- you are correct; this is very often not a viable option and without support could ignite a high conflict person further.
      Shifting the actions of a difficult person can be very hard to achieve, and for many it can be a distressing experience. They may have been using conflict for most of their lives to avoid taking responsibility for their actions or to manipulate people to get what they want.
      It is advisable to find out from your organisation what resources you can draw on to help you manage the difficult person concerned. The resources might include a high conflict specialist to guide you through the process and allow you to develop your skills and confidence in talking to difficult people. If you are a member of a peer group or have a mentor, you can use them as a confidential sounding board to test out your ideas and discuss your experiences.
      You should also involve the Human Resource department for advice, support and assistance.
      Thank you again John for raising this cautionary point for readers

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