Conflict Diagnosis: Are you Hot or Cool?

As every supervisor knows, job conflict is no fun to deal with. But since conflict is a fact of life in today’s complex working world, supervisors may as well deal with it constructively. Half the battle is clearly understanding the root causes of conflict.


Although conflict comes in many forms and disguises, most workplace conflicts stem from two root causes: personalities and issues. People clash as the result of temperament and emotion or over differences of perspective and opinion.

Personality-focused conflict is generally the toughest to deal with because it is emotional, people-intensive and frequently the product of a grudge. For these reasons, personality-based conflict can be aptly characterized as "hot."

By contrast, issues-centered disputes typically give rise to a cooler variety of conflict that is intellectual, idealistic (based on "shoulds" and "coulds") and rooted in perceptual differences between people (labor vs. management, younger vs. older employees, line vs. staff, etc.). Cool conflict is less emotionally explosive than hot conflict, but may take longer to extinguish.

The following graphic puts hot and cool conflict into perspective:

Hot Conflict 
Centers On:

Cool Conflict
Centers On:







The past

The future





Hot conflict boils up when personalities clash and an emotional confrontation (overt commission) results. Unless the relationship is patched up, differences will fester until a showdown occurs to see who has the most power. Hot conflict is worst when those involved reject conciliation or compromise for fear of "losing face."

Cool conflict emerges when co-workers have divergent opinions about some high profile issue in the workplace. The ensuing debate customarily revolves around what everyone feels their organization or department should, could or ought to do. Cool conflict is worst when the different parties feel an important principle or cherished tradition is on the line and they equate compromise with selling out.


The first step in resolving a workplace conflict is to determine whether it is of the hot or cool variety. The simple checklist below will yield a quick and accurate diagnosis of conflict. Check whether statement A or B better describes the conflict scenario being diagnosed.

1. The conflict seems to center more on:

___ A. How people feel about each other (relationships).

___ B. Differing points of view about an issue (opinion or philosophy).

2. The conflict has generated more:

___ A. Emotion (feelings).

___ B. Ideas (facts and information).

3. The conflict centers on:

___ A. Past interactions between people.

___ B. Concerns about future policy and precedent.

4. The conflict was triggered by:

___ A. What someone did or said.

___ B. What someone failed to do (or should have done).

5. The conflict has generated more:

___ A. Argument.

___ B. Discussion

6. The conflict is best described as:

___ A. A struggle to dominate.

___ B. A struggle to be right.

7. Which action will do the most good:

___ A. Let people cool off.

___ B. Give people more information.

8. Which action will do the most good:

___ A. Someone will probably have to get more power or influence.

___ B. More information and analysis will be needed.

9. When this conflict is resolved, people will probably feel:

___ A. Either victorious or defeated.

___ B. Better informed and aware.

10. As the result of the conflict, people will probably:

___ A. Either victorious or defeated.

___ B. Understand one another better.

Total up the number of A responses you checked and the number of B responses. The more A responses you checked, the hotter the conflict; the more B responses, the cooler the conflict.


The worst way to deal with conflict, either hot or cool, is to simple let nature take its course. A runaway mine train of hostilities and political behavior will be the disastrous result. Conflict reduction requires a well-thought out action plan.

An action plan for containing hot conflict should be built around the following principles:

1. Strive to get those involved to bury the hatchet and put the overall mission first.

2. Accentuate the use of "we" and "us" over "I" and "me."

3. Speak in the future tense rather than past tense.

4. Substitute "I think" for "I feel."

5. Get people to focus more on their intentions and ideals than their past behaviors or words.

6. Stress opportunities for future accomplishment over past failures and shortcomings.

Cool conflict scenarios require a different set of action guidelines:

1. Help those involved to see the many things they already have in common and the goals they share.

2. Assist the team in clarifying its goals and standards to facilitate rational discussion of the conflict issues.

3. Give people ample opportunity to air their views and perspectives (so they won’t feel "squelched").

4. Search for creative alternatives and options that everyone can endorse without feeling they’ve sold out.

5. Encourage people to experiment with an idea or alternative before rejecting it. In return, promise to drop the idea if the experiment fails to work out satisfactorily.

6. Challenge people to substitute facts for opinion and analysis for generalities.

When managed skillfully, conflict can foster new ideas and initiatives and strengthen the ability of team members to work together through thick and thin. Both hot and cool conflict can be valuable catalysts to organization change and development. In short, manage conflict to work for you rather than against you?