Managing Conflict and Bullying Behavior in the Workplace

Recently, I have been addressing questions about bullying behavior in the workplace and how to use the TKI Conflict Model to help understand and better manage such difficult situations. In my consulting work, I have often had to counsel members and managers who were experienced as making life in the organization unbearable, dangerous, and fearful for others—usually by their extreme aggressiveness and sometimes by their extreme passivity.

Naturally, to present such emotionally charged discussions about bullying and troublemaking behavior in workshop settings requires the full support and cooperation of senior management (even in those cases when some of them have been identified as troublemakers or bullies). Bottom line: Hopefully, the CEO will realize that if “ordinary conflict” is very costly to the organization if not handled well (absenteeism, tardiness, distraction, poor decision making and problem solving, etc.), the costs for the more extreme forms of dysfunctional (pathological) conflict-handling behavior are even more debilitating for the organization and its members.

In a series of workshops throughout the organization, I discuss the five modes of conflict behavior according to those “normal” dimensions of (1A) assertiveness and (1B) cooperativeness. I then present the same five modes when those two dimensions are relabeled as (2A) aggressiveness and (2B) passive hostility. After defining and discussing these later more extreme forms of behavior, the five conflict modes take on a whole new light. Members in the workshops then come up with many examples of how any conflict mode when acted out by extremely insecure, angry, resentful, and unconscious persons can engender the kinds of interpersonal experiences that have been associated with bullying and troublemaking behavior.

It is most enlightening when people in the workshop form small groups to clearly articulate how to tell when assertiveness becomes aggressiveness and when cooperativeness becomes passive hostility. The members also discuss what signs and signals can help people stop themselves and others from “accidentally” switching from (1) the ordinary—healthy—varieties of handling human conflict to (2) using extreme—unhealthy—varieties of behavior in those same situations.

In many of these workshops, I have found it extremely useful to discuss fundamental aspects of ego psychology (yes, in organizational settings!), so everyone becomes aware of how loathing feelings about oneself and repressed anger, rage, and hate from past violations can lead one to act out (release, displace) that past pain onto present circumstances. Just making this discussion PUBLIC in a workshop setting can do wonders to sensitize all organizational members that certain behaviors must be seen for what they are—and must no longer be tolerated…which becomes embedded in the “corporate culture.”

If everyone in an organization is made aware of the two different sets of TKI dimensions and is provided some practical material on ego psychology, it then becomes VERY UNPOPULAR for anyone to act out bad behaviors, which will then get them labeled as insecure, unresolved, and living out old wounds. It is also worthwhile to then develop a public policy on what behaviors will no longer be tolerated in the organization, now that there is public—cultural—knowledge about approaching conflict in dysfunctional versus healthy ways. 


Ralph Kilmann

Ralph H. Kilmann, Ph.D., is CEO and Senior Consultant at Kilmann Diagnostics in Newport Coast, California. Formerly, he was the George H. Love Professor of Organization and Management at the Katz School of Business, University of Pittsburgh—which was his professional home for thirty years. He earned both his B.S. and M.S.… MORE

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