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Workplace Conflict Exposed

Thursday 1 May, 2003
It’s all a matter of whether you work with turtles, sharks, teddy bears, foxes or owls! Why is it important to be able to identify the different personality styles in your workplace, or for that matter, your own? Identifying the turtles, sharks, teddy bears, foxes or owls in your business puts you in a better position to make positive use of individual personalities and turn workplace conflict around.

Workplace conflict exposed

Workplace conflict is both common and inevitable. Why? Because every day we can expect to interact, in numerous situations, with people who have different values, behavioural needs and expectations - yet we are all expected to work together harmoniously.

These differences can strain relationships, obstruct cooperation and lead to displaced feelings. Workplace conflict can interfere with task or goal achievement, lower morale and create tension. And, failure to resolve conflict can sap and divert our creative and productive energies.

Conflict between parties can occur for any number of underlying reasons. These can include differing perceptions; communication problems; differing views over content of the issue; differing moral, social or religious values; differing goals; pressure of responsibilities; status differences or power play; emotional issues; personality clashes; competition for limited resources; systems and environmental problems; organisation and leadership problems.

Workplace conflict isn't all bad

However, workplace conflict doesn't necessarily have to be harmful or destructive. It is possible that these very differences can at times provide the spark which energises the team and results in productive benefits such as enhanced creativity, innovation and quality.

Disagreement can be considered healthy when it:

  • moves a relationship out of a rut;
  • discovers the best response to a situation;
  • gets hidden feelings out in the open where they can be dealt with by with both/all parties;
  • develops confidence in a relationship; and
  • promotes genuine interaction between people.

How to identify personality styles

To create a productive work environment you need to work at eliminating disruptive or unhelpful conflict. A good step forward is to recognise, and understand the personality types, behavioural preferences and comfort zones of those people with whom you work.

Why? If you can recognise each personality type and understand what makes each of these people tick you can then make use of the appropriate individual's personality traits to resolve conflict in different situations.

Use the following descriptors to help identify your workplace associates.

The turtle - avoids

When a person recognises that a conflict exists but reacts by withdrawing or suppressing the conflict.


  • Turtles withdraw into their shells to avoid conflicts.
  • They give up their personal goals and relationships.
  • They stray away from the issues over which the conflict is taking place and from the people with whom they are in conflict.
  • They believe it is hopeless to try to resolve conflicts.
  • They feel helpless. They believe it is easier to withdraw physically and psychologically from a conflict than to face it.

This type of behaviour is appropriate when:

  • an issue is trivial, or more important issues are pressing,
  • one perceives there is no chance of satisfying their concerns,
  • potential disruption outweighs the benefits of resolution,
  • others can resolve the conflict more effectively,
  • issues seem symptomatic of other issues.

The shark - competes

When a person seeks to achieve his/her goals or further his/her interests, regardless of the impact on the other party.


  • Sharks try to overpower opponents by forcing them to accept their solution to the conflict.
  • Their goals are highly important to them and the relationship of minor importance. They seek to achieve their goals at all costs, they are not concerned with the needs of other persons and they don’t care if other persons like or accept them.
  • Sharks assume that conflicts are settled by one person winning and one person losing. They want to be the winner. Winning gives sharks a sense of pride and achievement. Losing gives them a sense of weakness, inadequacy and failure. They try to win by attacking, overpowering, overwhelming and intimidating others.

This type of behaviour is appropriate when:

  • quick, decisive action is vital,
  • there are important issues where unpopular actions need implementing,
  • there are issues vital to the organisation’s welfare, and when the person knows that he/she is right,
  • the person is up against a person/people who take advantage of non-competitive behaviour.

The teddy bear - accommodates

When the parties seek to appease their opponent by placing their opponent’s interest ahead of their own.


  • Teddy bears feel the relationship is of great importance while their own goals are of little importance.
  • They want to be accepted and liked by other people.
  • They think that conflict should be avoided in favour of harmony and believe that conflicts cannot be discussed without damaging relationships.
  • They are afraid that if the conflict continues someone will get hurt and that would ruin the relationship.
  • They will give up their goals to preserve the relationship.

This type of behaviour is appropriate when:

  • issues are more important to others than yourself, to satisfy others and maintain co-operation,
  • there is a need to build social credits for later issues,
  • there is a need to minimise loss when you are outmatched and losing,
  • harmony and stability are especially important,
  • there is a need to allow subordinates to develop by learning from their mistakes.

The fox - compromises

When each party gives up something in order to reach a compromised outcome.


  • Foxes seek a compromise. They are willing to sacrifice part of their goals and relationships in order to find agreement for the common good.
  • To do this they need to persuade the other person in a conflict to give up part of their goals.
  • They seek a solution to conflicts where both sides gain something, the middle ground between two extreme positions

This type of behaviour is appropriate when:

  • goals are important, but not worth the effort or potential disruption of more assertive modes,
  • opponents with equal power are committed to mutually exclusive objectives or issues,
  • there is a need to achieve temporary settlements to complex issues,
  • there is a need to arrive at expedient solutions under time pressure,
  • it can be used as a back up when collaboration or competition is unsuccessful.

The owl - cooperates

When each of the parties in conflict searches for a mutually satisfying outcome.


  • Owls highly value their own goals and relationships.
  • They view conflicts as problems to be solved and seek a solution that achieves both their own goals and the goals of the other person in conflict.
  • They see conflicts as improving relationships by reducing tension between two people. They try to begin a discussion that identifies the conflict as a problem.
  • They maintain the relationship by seeking solutions that satisfy both themselves and the other person.
  • They are not satisfied until a solution is found that achieves their own goals and the other person's goals and are not satisfied until the tensions and negative feelings have been resolved.

This type of behaviour is appropriate when:

  • there is a need to find an integrative solution when both sets of concerns are too important to be compromised,
  • the objective is to learn,
  • there is a need to merge insights from people with different perspectives,
  • there is a need to gain commitment by incorporating concerns into a consensus,
  • there is a need to work through feelings that have interfered with a relationship.

Turn conflict around

Typically most workplaces have a mix of staff who exhibit the behavioural examples described above. The key for the manager of the work team is to harness these personality differences when conflict arises. How?

  • identify your own behavioural style,
  • identify each staff member's individual style,
  • identify what style is required to resolve the specific conflict situation,
  • use a staff member with the right personality traits to facilitate a meeting to resolve the conflict.

Author Credits

Reprinted with permission of NSW Business Chamber. For more information about this article or NSW Business Chamber, its products, services and membership, please call 13 26 96 or visit the web site: www.nswbusinesschamber.com.au
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