©2022 Megan Hunter, MBA
Is it advisable to keep an employee with high-conflict behavior?
High-conflict equals high disruption, and not the good kind. Dealing with the many dramas that make up high-conflict situations comes at a cost in terms of time, bottom line, and maximum frustration. One wrong email response can result in twelve hours of meetings with HR, managers and even with consultants. Is it worth it to keep trying? What if you’re dealing with a high-earner or in an environment where workers are scarce? Can high-conflict behavior change or at least be contained? Can the disruption be mitigated?
At a recent training a participant asked why I was teaching them to learn new communication skills to use in high-conflict interactions. “Isn’t it advisable to let them go?” The audience broke out in applause.
Of course! No one wants to divert time from revenue-producing activities. In a perfect world, people who produce and don’t cause issues would be preferred and retained, but it’s rarely a perfect world. The closest we get to that is a large corporation with tight policies, good hiring practices, and lots of structure. But in small business and often in not-for-profits and government, options aren’t as plentiful. The reality is that people with high conflict personalities are in our places of work and decisions must be made about their tenure.
The audience had just listened to the list of behaviors that make up a high-conflict dispute:
extreme behaviors, and
the easiest to spot—blame
This typically results in productivity reduction, divisions within teams and within the organization, grievances, complaints and lawsuits that tie up resources.
Of course they weren’t keen on keeping staff with these behaviors, but here’s how I responded.
It depends on whether your organization is prepared to invest in:
providing the individual with skills coaching to give opportunity for change and improvement
creating organization-wide communication and behavior policies
teaching conflict communication skills such as EAR Statements and BIFF Response to everyone
Skills Coaching: Personal Skills for Productive Relationships
We created a coaching program focused on teaching 4 Big Skills that give the individual every opportunity to change—a chance to change. The person isn’t trying to be difficult—they just don’t have these 4 Big Skills that help them have good relationships and good conflict resolution skills.
The coaching sessions are aimed at transforming the 4 high-conflict behaviors into 4 big strengths. In other words, the new skills should:
all-or-nothing thinking into flexible thinking (more than one option, to reduce rigidity and holding one’s ground)
unmanaged emotions into managed emotions (anger management; anxiety management; self-regulation; self-talk)
extreme behaviors into moderate behaviors (stopping and checking themselves before acting impulsively on what feels like a good idea in the moment)
blame into taking responsibility (this is huge!)
The New Ways for Work method gives people a chance to change. It’s worth the investment. Anyone who coaches employees or others in conflict resolution can teach clients/employees these important, life-changing skills.
Communication and Behavior Policies
Lots of large corporations and some smaller companies are proactive about acceptable communication and behavior. Having them creates expectation and structure, and ultimately gives HR, managers and others something specific to point to for correcting unwanted behavior, which keeps it from feeling personal to the individual.
Conflict Communication Skills
Communication is king and nearly everyone can learn to communicate differently. Bill Eddy, my co-founder at High Conflict Institute, created two important communication methods that not only de-escalate upset people, but they help to create a calm environment when used by everyone.
For verbal communication, an EAR Statement™ that shows Empathy, Attention, and Respect, is helpful (required) to calm an upset person before engaging them in a debate or expecting a logical conversation. An EAR Statement is just one simple phrase such as “That sounds really frustrating”, which calms the reactive brain and helps the person gain access to the problem-solving brain. I like to think of it as CalmB4Think™ or CalmB4Engage™.
For written communication a BIFF Response® will contain the back-and-forth and ultimately contain the conflict. A BIFF Response is a written communication that is Brief, Informative, Friendly, and Firm. It essentially extracts anything that will escalate conflict, even inadvertently. It’s like having a magic wand in your keyboard.
People who exhibit the four defining characteristics of high-conflict behavior aren’t bad people—they often succeed when given a chance to learn some new skills—and to change. New Ways for Work training is available to coaches, HR professionals and anyone wanting to learn how to help people develop new skills.
Back to the question at hand: Should employees with high-conflict behaviors be given a chance to change?
Yes, in my opinion, they should, but only if the organization is willing to invest in coaching, policies and teaching everyone new communication skills. These aren’t old school tools — that’s why we call it New Ways for Work. In the past, we didn’t know what to do, but now we do.
Will the skills work for everyone? No. Ultimately, the individual will demonstrate whether they have changed or not, and then the organization must be willing to make a decision. If even moderate change is evident, then you’ve accomplished something major. If the changes just aren’t there, and the behaviors are disruptive or damaging, then it’s likely time to go separate ways. But at least you’ve given someone the change to change.
MEGAN HUNTER, MBA is the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. She is a keynote speaker and provides training on high-conflict situations. She created the Conflict Influencer™ Certification and strongly believes that most have the ability to influence conflict. She has written several books on the topic and has taught professionals in the U.S. and around the world.