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Preventing Legal Fires - Conflict Management

Much of the personnel litigation affecting a department can be prevented with adequate and early communication between the parties in the attempt to resolve an issue of conflict. As you may be directly or indirectly affected, that could mean you are the Chief, the affected member or their representatives.

Conflict refers to some form of friction, or discord arising within a group when the beliefs or actions of one or more members of the group are either resisted by or unacceptable to one or more members of another group. Many times it is a violation of policy or a personal conflict between the members of your organization.

Conflict occurs when you have a situation in which your concerns, desires, preferences, and/or goals differ from those of another person. Conflict will center on the differences between two or more individuals (as well as groups or organizations) and how they choose to handle those differences.

Conflict is a daily reality. Whether at home or at work, our needs and values come into opposition with those of others. Some conflicts are minor, easy to handle, or can be overlooked.

Workplace conflict can be a serious problem in the workplace, and; 1) will result in a loss of productive employee time; 2) could result in civil litigation with possible personal liability of managers and supervisors and 3) cause safety concerns in the fire station or on a call. Unresolved conflict can; create self-doubt; create higher stress and irritability between the members of your organization resulting in low productivity, disorganization, suspicion, poor teamwork and indecision which may create a safety issue.

According to the United Department of Justice, the workplace is the most dangerous place to be in America indicating the numbers of incidents of workplace include homicide and is the leading cause of death of women and second leading cause of death for men. We can make a significant contribution to the reduction of fatal and injury events to include depression and PTSD in your firefighters by getting involved early in managing conflict.

Conflict require a carefully thought out strategy for successful resolution to avoid lasting enmity. So, the question is not IF there will be conflict, but rather how to handle situations WHEN there is a conflict.

Conflict can create positive and necessary change which at the time of the event or events, may not seem likely.

Conflict can be positive and is one of the more potent of human interactions. It can either facilitate growth or bring harm to the people involved. Perhaps because of its potency, conflict has become a loaded word, carrying many negative connotations. Many people consider conflict to be negative, but it can actually be positive when it is used to solve a problem. It can also help enhance one’s strengths, clarify your purpose and encourage action.

Conflict resolution is a learned skill and takes some work of the members of your organization to recognize and manage conflict early. The good news is that you can improve your ability to resolve conflicts, it just takes practice and an understanding of common conflict preferences and styles. Training for conflict resolution, the organization must understand that each person has a different style of dealing with conflict.

Conflict management and conflict prevention starts with creating a culture of trust by laying the groundwork for that trust. I have said this before, hire right with an extensive hiring and interview process bringing to your department those that adopt the standards, policies and codes of conduct we seek in long term contributing firefighters. We need to catch people doing things right and seek out opportunities to acknowledge and praise employees. Doing so creates an environment where people feel comfortable bringing up problems and encourage open discussion among all members.

As strange as it seems I recommend that leadership welcome dissent but not the daily b******* that occurs in any fire station. Managers should encourage dissent that’s focused on tasks, strategies and mission. In order to get to the root of a problem, at times a retreat with an outside facilitator is the best way to get beyond surface conversations.

There are five different styles of managing conflict. Do you see yourself doing one or more of these?

Avoiding - “I’ll think about it tomorrow”. Avoiding is unassertive and uncooperative. When avoiding, an individual does not immediately pursue his or her own concerns or those of the other person. Avoiding might take the form of a diplomatically sidestepping an issue, postponing an issue until a better time, or simply withdrawing from a threatening situation.

Accommodating - “It would be my pleasure”. Accommodating is unassertive and cooperative—the opposite of competing. When accommodating, a leader neglects their own concerns to satisfy the concerns of the other person; there is an element of self-sacrifice in this mode. Accommodating might take the form of selfless generosity or charity, obeying another person’s order when you would prefer not to, or yielding to another’s point of view.

Competing - “My way or the highway”. Competing is assertive and uncooperative, a power-oriented mode. When competing, an individual pursues his or her own concerns at the other person’s expense, using whatever power seems appropriate to win his or her position. Competing may mean standing up for your rights, defending a position you believe is correct or simply trying to win.

Collaborating - “Two heads are better than one!” Collaborating is both assertive and cooperative. When collaborating, an individual attempts to work with the other person to find a solution that fully satisfies the concerns of both. It involves digging into an issue to identify the underlying concerns of the two individuals and to find an alternative that meets both sets of concerns. Collaborating between two persons might take the form of exploring a disagreement to learn from each other’s insights, resolving some condition that would otherwise have them competing for resources, or confronting and trying to find a creative solution to an interpersonal problem.

Compromising - is intermediate in both assertiveness and cooperativeness. When compromising, an individual has the objective of finding an expedient, mutually acceptable solution that partially satisfies both parties. Compromising falls on a middle ground between competing and accommodating, giving up more than competing but less than accommodating. Likewise, it addresses an issue more directly than avoiding but doesn’t explore it in as much depth as collaborating. Compromising might mean splitting the difference, exchanging concessions, or seeking a quick middle-ground position.

One important fact (among the many) is how important is the issue to you or the department and how much energy do you want to expend to resolve this conflict? Conflict resolution must involve a conversation or negotiation between two parties and in that conversation, emotions and the stakes are usually running high therefore making engaging in the conflict resolution process it a difficult one.

Here are some suggested steps to resolve conflict:
• Schedule a meeting to address the problem, preferably at a neutral place.
• Set ground rules. Ask all parties to treat each other with respect and to make an effort to listen and understand others’ views.
• Ask each participant to describe the conflict, including desired changes. Direct participants to use “I” statements, not “you” statements. They should focus on specific behaviors and problems rather than people.
• Ask participants to restate what others have said.
• Summarize the conflict based on what you have heard and obtain agreement from participants.
• Brainstorm solutions. Discuss all of the options in a positive manner.
• Rule out any options that participants agree are unworkable.
• Summarize all possible options for a solution.
• Assign further analysis of each option to individual participants.
• Make sure all parties agree on the next steps.
• Close the meeting by asking participants to shake hands, apologize and thank each other for working to resolve the conflict.

I also suggest the department create diverse work teams, not necessarily the way we traditionally think of diversity but those with different thought processes, the way of approaching a problem and the ability to brainstorm a solution. Create work teams whose members have diverse expertise, ways of thinking and backgrounds. Appointing a rotating devil’s advocate or contrarian may be a good way to stir up productive conflict.

When Should You Seek Outside Help? While it’s better to address workplace conflicts as soon as possible and internally, sometimes you need outside help from a mediator, arbitrator or attorney.

Experts say the need for outside assistance include the following:
• When potential legal issues are involved, such as allegations of discrimination or harassment.
• When the HR department doesn’t have the time or training to provide the conflict resolution assistance needed.
• When there are patterns of recurring issues.
• When the flare-ups are becoming abusive or resemble bullying.
• When a manager needs retraining that can’t be done in-house.
• When the environment is so toxic it’s time to get everyone offsite so the office doesn’t trigger continuing negative responses.

Some closing thoughts:
• Watch for non-verbal messaging whereas 93% of the meaning of a message comes from non-verbal sources to include facial expression (55%), and Tone of Voice (38%).
• Allow time for cooling down.
• Analyze the situation.
• Communicate honestly and state the problem to the other person.
• Leave the person for some time to enable a reflective moment and thought gathering.
• Use a win-win approach.
• Personality traits affect how people handle conflict.
        o Your personality may actually harm the resolution process
• Eliminate threats.
       o Threats from one party in a disagreement tend to produce more threats from the other.
• Conflict decreases as goal difficulty decreases and goal clarity increases.
• Men and women tend to handle conflict similarly.
       o There is no ‘gender effect’.


Conflict management is tough as each side may have drawn the line in the sand that makes a position unassailable and hard to overcome. The best approach for a leader is to prevent the conflict from occurring in the first place by training your staff in the art of communication with open and unjudged dialogue and to help your staff to realize that not everything occurring in our lives on the job and possibly at home needs to create conflict.

It is important for the leadership to pay attention to your people and actively listen to what they have to say, preventing another Legal Fire in your organization.


Dangerous workplaces - Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument

Personal experience as a husband, parent and fire department Chief Officer.

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Comment by John K. Murphy on January 25, 2019 at 10:52am

Thanks Skip. Much appreciated

Comment by Skip Simmons on January 25, 2019 at 12:53am

Thanks John, another very informative article.

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