©2019 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
Many workplace disputes get resolved rather easily by those involved or by simple management interventions. Other disputes are more difficult and mediation is becoming an appealing method for resolving such disputes, because it can be quick, confidential and empowering to employees. However, high-conflict workplace disputes can be more intractable, so that implementing mediation without adequate preparation may expose one or more employees to continuing abusive behavior by an employee or manager with a high-conflict personality. In these situations, more steps may need to be involved, as described below.
High Conflict People (HCPs) at Work
High-conflict workplace disputes often arise when a manager is a bully, when co-workers have a unresolved personal conflict, or when an employee becomes bitter toward a supervisor or the whole organization. When such a dispute escalates or becomes prolonged, there may be one or more people with a high-conflict personality involved. We estimate that approximately 10% of the adult population has a high-conflict personality, which would be realistic for those in the workplace as well. It’s the personality that usually drives these conflicts, not the position that someone is in. However, the position can allow them to misuse their power or stay entrenched in the organization despite their high-conflict behavior.
High conflict people (HCPs) tend to have four main characteristics: Preoccupation with blaming others (and not taking any responsibility themselves); All-or-nothing thinking and solutions; Unmanaged emotions; and Extreme behaviors. In the workplace these behaviors often focus on an individual Target of Blame, but eventually spill over to the whole workgroup sooner or later. Yet most people don’t want to get involved, such that these high conflict behaviors may continue for quite a while unchallenged—simmering in the daily life of the organization and reducing morale. This is particularly true in healthcare, education and government organizations, which tend to attract nice people who don’t like to rock the boat by getting involved in other people’s conflicts. Yet there are myths that may keep the HCP in place for quite a while, such as the following two reasons:
The HCP May Be Productive
Many high conflict people are very smart, hard-working and highly-productive in the workplace. There productivity numbers may be great. This tends to make co-workers and managers more hesitant to deal with them because of what they fear would happen if they left. However, research shows that this is a misplaced fear.[i] Generally the quality of “toxic workers” is lower and it is better for a company to remove them than to keep them and tolerate their disruption of the workforce.
The HCP May Have Special Skills or Knowledge
Yet many toxic workers tend to last a long time in the organization because of their special skills or knowledge. This is common in healthcare organizations (surgeons who bring in large sums), educational institutions (famous professors), and high-tech companies (with their tech wizards). The most common approach is to tolerate them and try not to offend them by telling everyone else to walk on eggshells around them. Yet the same research shows that keeping a star employee is less beneficial financially than terminating them if they are a toxic employee, unless the organization can “convert them into an average employee.”[ii]
Can This Employee Change?
In two previous High Conflict Institute newsletter articles (Can High Conflict People Change? and Fire or Keep High-Conflict Employees?), the issue of high conflict personalities and change was addressed, but not in the context of mediation. Fundamentally, high conflict people tend to have traits of personality disorders, which means that they have an “enduring pattern” of social impairment.[iii] This implies that they do not change. However, with enough structure, support, and skills-training in basic conflict resolution, many HCPs have been able to change enough to maintain their employment and become “average employees.” To successfully accomplish this, there appears to be three steps that can help, the last of which is the mediation process:
1. Provide Skills to the Workgroup
2. Provide Coaching to the Employee
3. Mediate Any Disputes with the Employee
1. Provide Skills to the Workgroup
Since high-conflict workers have usually been tolerated for a long time and affected the whole workgroup, it can be helpful to provide a training in basic conflict resolution skills to the whole workgroup. This is a no-blame, no-shame approach and workgroups find that they all appreciate the types of simple and practical skills that we provide as trainers for High Conflict Institute.
There are several benefits of this type of workgroup training. First, all employees have some common tools they can use in dealing with issues within and outside the workgroup, such as our skills for calming upset people; making proposals to make good decisions; writing emails that are brief, informative, friendly and firm; and setting limits with compassion and consequences.
Second, employees are pleased that they can use these skills in their personal lives with family, friends and neighbors. This is often what employees tell us after a training was the most valuable part as an employee fringe benefit.
Third, the workgroup environment has often become involved in the ongoing disputes of the high-conflict employee, either as their Targets of Blame, negative advocates (reinforcing the HCPs behavior), bystanders (who overtly or covertly challenge the HCP), or avoiding the HCP. By learning shared skills, the workgroup can build momentum forward in using these positive skills rather than reinforcing negative behavior. Everyone knows the simple and practical skills that everyone should be using.
Fourth, employees involved in a dispute can use these skills to resolve that dispute.
2. Provide Coaching to the Employee(s)
Remember that high-conflict employees have a potentially enduring pattern of behavior, so that in order for this pattern to change the person will need more than simply participating in a group training in basic conflict resolution skills. In this case, it appears that specific coaching can help the individual learn and practice interpersonal conflict resolution skills through discussion, writing and role-play of difficult situations. Such coaching needs to be reinforced for true change to occur, so that several sessions (say 3-8) will be necessary to see whether the individual can really change in meaningful ways. These may need to be spread out over time after initial weekly coaching sessions. (New Ways for Work Coaching® by Bill Eddy and L. Georgi DiStefano is one method designed to accomplish this with a Workbook containing specific skills.)
One of the key outcomes of such coaching is to see whether the person begins taking responsibility for their interpersonal behavior in the workplace. Since blaming others is a primary characteristic of HCPs, this is essential to any real progress. And yet, when a person can say “I’m working on managing my emotions;” or “I’m working on avoiding all-or-nothing thinking and behavior;” it is a real sign of progress. Most HCPs will refuse to take any responsibility for their part in a conflict. When an employee can say to their manager or a co-worker that they are working on changing some aspect of themselves, an important breakthrough has occurred.
In some cases, there may be two or more employees who are participating in high-conflict behavior in the workplace, quite possibly with each other. This is very common when there are two or more HCPs. They may find each other. By referring each of them to coaching that involves learning the same skills, they may become able to spontaneously resolve their own behavior and disputes. However, they may also need or benefit from a mediation of their conflicts.
3. Mediate Any Disputes with the Employee
Before a mediation should occur with a potentially high-conflict employee or manager, someone should determine whether the parties to the mediation are taking responsibility for their own behavior. One way is to interview the employees who have been through coaching to determine whether they are working on themselves in a meaningful way. “What is something that you are working on about yourself?” “How would you deal with a similar situation [a previous conflict] in the future.”
Then, a productive mediation may occur in which the employees can each address changes that will help them both be positive contributors to the workgroup morale and each other. On the other hand, a mediation may help determine that certain employees should no longer work together, or that a particular employee should be moved out of the workgroup.
The style of mediation that is used can vary, although we recommend using a method designed for possible high-conflict situations, such as our New Ways for Mediation® method that emphasizes having the parties use skills like those they have learned in our coaching method. For more on this method, see HERE.
Mediation is becoming a more desirable method of resolving workplace disputes. However, when high-conflict personalities are involved, more preparation is necessary to facilitate a successful result. In some cases, training a whole workgroup in a few simple and practical conflict resolution skills establishes a more positive environment and helps everyone avoid reinforcing the high-conflict behavior of a few. Also, coaching a potentially high-conflict employee or manager can lead to a more positive set of behaviors. Certainly coaching is a simple way to see if positive change can occur or not. Then, if the individuals involved can demonstrate that they are taking responsibility for themselves, a mediation can be a positive structure for resolving issues and moving forward in the workplace.
While there are no guarantees, implementing these three steps may be strong enough in some cases to overcome intractable workplace conflicts that have previously been tolerated or led to discharging valued employees. None of these steps has to take long, especially compared to workplace investigations. Also, none of these steps have to involve the high financial and reputational cost of legal procedures. Even if these steps do not result in a totally positive outcome, they usually calm the conflicts and bring some organizational peace that has been missing.
[i] Michael Houseman and Dylan Minor, Toxic Workers – Working Paper No. 16-057, Harvard Business School (2015); https://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication%20Files/16-057_d45c0b4f-fa19-49de-8f1b-4b12fe054fea.pdf.
[iii] American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Arlington, VA, American Psychiatric Association, 2013, 646.
BILL EDDY, LCSW, ESQ. is the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. He pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and is viewed globally as the leading expert on managing disputes involving people with high conflict personalities. He has written more than twenty books on the topic and has taught professionals in the U.S. and more than ten countries.