Conflict Resolution – What exactly is the problem?

When it comes to addressing a conflict at work assertiveness skills are required. Avoiding the conflict will not solve the issue. However many managers, having developed their personal assertiveness skills, continue to find the results of confrontations disappointing. The same issue is repeatedly discussed or, having dealt with the problem, both parties are still upset.

Whilst calling a meeting to address a problem with an employee is an important step, unpacking the problem in order to get to the real heart of the matter will enable resolution.

Apply CPR

The first stage is to break the problem down into its component issues. To do this we recommend the CPR method. So first you need to ask yourself, is your problem one of:

  • Content
  • Pattern and/ or
  • Relationship


CONTENT issues are one off or first time occurrences of a problem. For example; an employee turns up late for an important meeting. The first time this happens it is a CONTENT issue. The appropriate action is to deal directly with the behaviour displayed on that occasion.

When the employee has been late five times over the last three weeks the issue has escalated from being a one off problem to displaying PATTERN. The problem is no longer the reasons for each individual day’s lateness, but the trend of ongoing lateness. Clearly explaining to the employee that it is the pattern you are addressing allows you to raise the history of the issue in the discussion, and avoids your conversation becoming embroiled in discussion and justification of the content of each individual incident.

If, despite best efforts, the employee continues to be late, with no indication of changing the trend, the issue is now one of professional RELATIONSHIP. The employee has now displayed a disrespect for their role, the organisation and is potentially unable to be trusted. The discussion at this point now needs to focus on their working relationships. Addressing content or pattern would be ineffectual and most likely result in increased upset as the real relationship issues remain unaddressed.

Discussions around working relationships are the most difficult to hold. They can be quite emotional and often emerge from conflict in deeply held values. So discussions around relationship issues need to be carefully thought out, but not avoided. When workplace relationship issues are left to smoulder, they become toxic and much more difficult to address.

Identify impact and intent

Having unpacked the problem into content, pattern and relationship issues consider the impact and intent of each issue before talking to the employee.

It is the impact of a behaviour that is the most common reason the behaviour is a problem. The impact is the result of that behaviour. It is not that the tardy employee cannot wake up in the morning it is the impact of this on the team or customers; reduced service, increased workload, extended meeting time. The impact may be isolated for a content issue, but once behaviour has escalated to a pattern or relationship issue it can be profound and chronic, leading to lack of respect for the employee by the team. By analysing each issue’s impact on all stakeholders you are able to identify what the main items are to address in a meeting.

There are circumstances where the actual behaviour may not have a significant impact, but the intent of the behaviour appears to be the problem. When we feel the impact of a problem it is very easy to assume the worst intentions. This is problematic, as often our assumed intentions are simply not true.

An example is a staff member who is receiving a number of delegated tasks from their boss. End of a number of delegated tasks their work to a new staff member, and due to the inexperience of the new staff member it is causing delays in work completion for the team. Initial impressions are the intention of the employee is to reduce their work load. In discussion it is discovered that this is not the intention at all. The intention is to develop the new employees’ skill. By identifying that the intent is positive, the staff member can be assisted in managing the delegation so it does not impact on the whole team.

It is important of tackling issues of intent and “clear the air”. Undealt with issues of intent strain working relationships as people continue to assume the worst of each other and treat each other according to these assumptions.

Next time you have a problem unpack it first into its component parts. First identify if you are dealing with content, pattern and/ or relationship issues. Secondly, for each issue consider the impact of that issue and the possible intentions of the perpetrator. This process allows you to drill down to the real nucleus of the problem, prepare for your discussion and deal with problems in the most effective way possible.

Send a Comment

Your email address will not be published.