Conflict: Prevention, Causes, and Solutions

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No organization is free of conflict at any level. Not even at the home of the most famous mouse in the world, Walt Disney and not even at the highest levels of leadership. In fact, so much conflict was taking place at Disney when Michael Ovitz, a Disney Director and the CEO, Michael Eisner were experiencing major clashes that Ovitz was terminated and a court case ensured. The financial cost was $140 million for Ovitz’s severance package and legal fees on top of that. So much for fairy tales.

As a CEO or manager, the trick is knowing if and when to step in to settle situations. An even better tactic is prevention.


Follow Good Hiring Policies Prevention begins at hiring. In the Disney case, first, Eisner didn’t follow sound hiring procedures and just brought Ovitz in because of their friendship. A power struggle ensured. A good idea might Ovitz and Disney’s culture were not a good match. Ovitz was a spender and Disney has a more economic philosophy. Further, the Board failed to properly vet Ovitz’s contract.

Ensure a Good Fit Wharton Professor Katherine J. Klein goes so far to suggest that, “Often, the hiring executives are busier making themselves look good during an interview [than] getting to know a candidate.” This article goes on to suggest that organizations should hire search firms that dissect and understand the hiring company’s culture. And while you’re not looking for “yes men,” you do want team members who can offer other perspectives and speak up in a constructive manner.

Delegating Responsibilities In Disney’s case, there may have been overlapping responsibilities; therefore, it is imperative that the CEO draw clear lines of accountability thereby avoiding dysfunctional teams.

Training Train managers, early on in their careers and frequently after, to be competent leaders. People leave jobs more often over ineffective leaders and they stay with organizations even with lower pay to work with good leaders and teams.

Coaching Implement coaching into your culture. Coaching can even help to repair and build teams and relationships within them if started early enough.


While the temptation might be to take the position that executives are adults and need to work together and therefore they need to settle their differences, is it the best position? Ignoring feuds is dangerous, there is too much at stake. By the same token, it is essential to uncover the root cause of the disagreements. Again, the temptation might be to chalk differences up to personality conflicts. However, digging deeper can uncover a different diagnosis.

When probing for causes of conflict, employees feel like their voice has been heard. Not providing employees the opportunity to air grievances, only leads to more conflict, disruption, and low morale.

Ben Dattner, Ph.D. of Dattner Consulting suggests that conflict can erupt over such items as:

  • Different visions
  • Divergent agendas
  • Two constituencies
  • Opposing pictures of the future
  • Different divisions
  • Different strategies

Peter Cappelli, director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources offers that the cause may be that leadership is not offering the proper incentives for people to get along and do their work. Some of us remember when your paycheck was the only motivation needed to do your job, but times have changed. Mr. Cappelli goes on to state that many organizations reward poor behaviors. He makes an excellent point. I’m sure you can remember working for companies that reward being competitive or let high performers break all the rules, or that ignore bullying. Not good.

Suzanne Lucas a.k.a. Evil HR Lady provides yet another list of possible causes:

  • An employee who doesn’t pull his/her weight
  • Gossips
  • Discovering unfair pay structures
  • Jealousy
  • High stress levels
  • Favoritism
  • Unequal job titles

Ms. Lucas makes the point that by not probing for the real source of a conflict, what will result is the implementation of the wrong solution. In her article, the “Evil HR Lady” also provides helpful dialog for such conflicts.

James Tobak, a VIP contributor to Entrepreneur offers a cause that may seem strange to some…passion. On one hand, passion may be a virtue, on the other, it can be the cause of major blowups. Often high-level executives care deeply about an issue. Another camp can share the same level of passion. However, when these two passions are on opposite ends of a spectrum or differing sides of a solution, it can look like the 4th of July in the executive suite. It’s time for solutions.


Ignoring conflict situations is not a solution; the risks are too great. While the best managers do encourage employees to work out their differences, close monitoring is required to prevent larger problems. Emotions often run too high. People who are unethical will never determine to do the right thing for the good of the organization.

 Culture of Respect

Aretha Franklin had it right all along R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Building a culture of respect takes time. However, respect is an essential element in productivity. Dr. Dattner suggests that people don’t have to like one another to work well together and accomplish a project. However, he goes on, mutual trust and respect are essential.

If your organization lacks a culture of respect, it’s time to start one – now! People will balk at the change, others may believe that things are too far gone in the organization to make such a change. This is like the parents who have allowed their adult child to remain living in their home, but the time has come for the adult child to be own their own and the parents don’t know how to address the situation. You can simply say that it’s a topic that hasn’t been addressed in the past, but the time has come to address it. Then do so by laying out a plan and steps to achieve the goal.

Items in planning a culture of respect might include zero tolerance for gossip, accountability for taking credit for someone else’s work, and retribution for unethical behavior. These ideas should be in your handbook and given the full light of day during your onboarding process. Living them every day is a given.

Minor Conflicts

Alison Green says, “Shut it down.”  Ms. Green suggests the following steps:

  • Speak to each person involved individually in private so that you hear both sides of the story.
  • Tell the individuals to stop bringing petty complaints to you.
  • Make it clear that each is responsible for contributing to a pleasant working environment; and this should be treated like any other performance expectation.
  • Keeping close tabs on the situation is necessary, particularly if one of the team members is at fault
  • Be sure not to punish one for the other’s infractions

Team Tantrums

Team conflicts can make things a bit messier. While it may be more time-consuming speaking to five or eight team members individually, you will hear everyone’s side of the situation and if you hear the same thing more than twice, you know you are beginning to unravel the cause. Even better, the same rules for questions from “Minor Conflicts” above can apply. For success,   Quick Base offers such questions as:

  • What do we need to start doing?
  • What do we need to stop doing?
  • What do we need to keep doing?

The Quick Base articles goes on to suggest that learning how to run team meanings efficiently and peacefully is essential.


Delegating clear responsibilities can be a solution, as above, but also a solution. Overtime, roles, job tasks, and jobs can become muddled. Be sure to reevaluate position descriptions, roles, and responsibilities on a regular basis. This is essential for organizations going through quick or large growth.


Knowing your employees can help here. You should know who will over or under react and who will just take change in stride. You can have an individual meeting with anyone who leans toward the overreacting side and reign them in. For those who underreact, encourage them to get on board and give them clear reasons why and any consequences that might ensue.

Prevention is a productive route to take. Understanding individuals on your team provides great support for this tactic. Being willing to take the time to drill down to uncover the root of a conflict can often move projects forward quickly. If you must take the solutions route, now you have some tools that can help you implement them quickly and with less stress.

Thank you for reading this blog. If you would like to discuss ideas surrounding conflict, call 404-320-7834, or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or visit

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