Voir en


Don’t sweep conflicts under the carpet

Conflicts are a normal part of workplace life. They are unavoidable and inescapable because we all have different expectations and needs. However, depending on how a conflict is managed, it may be either constructive or destructive, hence the importance of understanding how a conflict evolves.

The earliest stage of a conflict relates predominantly to the underlying causes. There are many and varied causes of conflicts, including – and the list is far from exhaustive – the difficulty to adapt to change, poor communication, cultural factors, distribution of resources, confusion over responsibilities, and inappropriate leadership.

As divergence between the parties’ needs, goals or expectations starts to emerge, positions become entrenched and communication becomes limited. The parties usually seek to make alliances and attempt to isolate one another. They start to lose sight of common ground and objectives, and rather focus on whatever has driven them apart.

At this stage, it is possible to encourage the parties to “let off steam”, take a step back and talk through the issue. Very often, when open and honest dialogue is given a chance, positions may be softened and attitudes realigned for a successful collaboration. Managers should not miss this opportunity to “nip the conflict in the bud”.

If the conflict is left to escalate, rational communication and mutual respect may be rapidly replaced by emotional confrontation. The parties’ focus shifts to winning, and their ability to demonstrate empathy for each other is seriously undermined. At this stage, both parties feel that their values and needs are threatened and see backing down as a loss of face and a failure. In their view, any further discussion is unlikely to resolve anything.

At the late conflict stage, the conflict spreads to the team, as the parties seek to damage their opponent’s reputation. Previously well-performing teams are drawn into the conflict and may lose motivation and productivity. Both parties experience high levels of stress.

After the conflict explodes and has to be managed – very often in a lose-lose settlement – it is often up to the managers to pick up the pieces. With both parties clinging to the view that they are right and everyone else is wrong, it is even more difficult for managers to balance the needs of the parties with those of the extended team and those of the business.

Whenever you experience or have to manage conflict, do not sweep it under the carpet: address it at its earliest stage. A conflict that is left unmanaged will create an increasingly toxic work environment.

I would like to leave you with a quote from Carl Jung that reminds us that conflicts, when properly and promptly addressed, may actually strengthen a work relationship:

“Conflicts create the fire of affects and emotions; and like every fire it has two aspects: that of burning and that of giving light.”

Laure Esteveny

I want to hear from you – feel free to email ombud@cern.ch with any feedback or suggestions for topics you’d like me to address.