High Conflict Colleagues

High Conflict Colleagues


No matter where you are in your career, whether you’re just starting out or getting ready to retire, whether you’re an intern or a CEO, whether you work part-time or are practically tied to your desk – you will, at some point, find yourself working with someone who just doesn’t play well with others.

Someone who appears to know how to push all the wrong buttons, and ramp up tension throughout the workplace.

The knock-on effect is costly – staff wellbeing falls, taking with it productivity and performance.

Thankfully, Nicola Hartfield knows the secret of working successfully with these “High Conflict Personalities”.

Nicola is an expert mediator. She has advised businesses and government departments in her home country of New Zealand, and spoken at conferences in the United States and Australia. We chatted to Nicola in Sydney after she presented a hugely popular workshop for CCER members.

Nicola began by explaining how she came to work in conflict resolution.

“I became interested in conflict resolution and transformation from my social work background. People often need some assistance to address difficult issues and learn skills to help them manage through a conflict situation. In my workplace mentoring role I saw the utter devastation that a relationship with a High Conflict Personality can have on competent, confident, professional people. It is a relationship which, left unmanaged, can have devastating effects in a short space of time.

In conflict resolution there’s quite a high percentage of High Conflict Personalities coming through because they don’t tend to resolve their conflicts, it’s always about blaming someone or something else. If I was going to be effective as a workplace mentor and mediator I needed to be skilled at working with high emotion, especially anger. I also became very interested in High Conflict Personalities.

QU: Can you describe a High Conflict Personality?

NH: People who fall into this category lack the ability to self reflect and be aware of their impact on other people. They fail to see the impact of their behaviours. For most of us, we are able to look at social cues and read people’s behaviours and then interpret how we might be affecting them. As a result we then change our behaviours accordingly so that we remain socially part of the group or that our behaviours fit the norms of the group or society we live in. With a High Conflict Personality, because they’re unable to self reflect, they are unable to change their behaviours.

They interpret feedback very personally and often in a negative frame, hence they feel others are out to get them. So they respond (defensively) and interpret others as being the target of blame and responsible for the deteriorating situation.

High Conflict Personalities can be difficult to spot initially as they tend to engage with you quickly. They may make fast connections of a social nature even when you are acting in a professional role. You might feel safe to disclose personal information. They are quick to engage because they have a need to connect. In fact they have a fear of not connecting. They are fearful of being overlooked or feel inferior or abandoned. There are some fears they’ve held ever since they were little, and the thinking is that they develop these fears from an early attachment that wasn’t secure, that might have been quite disorganised or dysfunctional. These fears produce a reaction to any feedback that is very defensive. This then makes them think ‘Gosh, I should be alert and on guard because the world is quite a threatening place.’ And so they have a mistaken assessment of the danger they’re in, which makes them act defensively, which allows them to get negative feedback given to them. So there’s kind of a circular thinking.

QU: Would a High Conflict Personality be deliberately difficult?

NH: No. They can’t help themselves. They can’t see it. We all have expectations of people. We have expectations of our partners, of our children, of our friends and of professionals, and I think often the expectation is that High Conflict People will think and react like we do. And so a lot of effort is put in to trying to get them to react in ways that we might react. And because they are unable to self reflect they don’t react in the same way, so we need to adjust our expectations of what is possible. So it’s not about bringing them into our world of thinking, because they can’t do that. It’s about having some understanding and empathy for them and their world, but also containing really strong boundaries and structures because a lot of their behaviours are dysfunctional and will cause havoc to the team or the individuals.

QU: How does that dysfunction play out?

NH: It depends what position they hold in the team. If there’s a High Conflict Personality who is on the same level as you it might play out in various team dynamics and responses, (such as) not getting on board, not being a team member, finding criticism and judgment and blame for other team members.

If they are in a position of authority over you, that’s a really dangerous place for you because they are responsible for your job description and your performance criteria, your reputation, your movement in and out of roles, your appointments, and they can block or destroy those sorts of markers of competence. An example of that is that somebody might be taken off the teams they’ve already been responsible for, they might be denied resources. They might be taken out of conversations that are important.

If somebody is under you in their team, then they may forever challenge whatever you bring to them, which might be in a coaching session or environment. They are great “yes, but” people, and they might be resistant to being a team member. So it depends where you sit in position with them.

QU: What is the best way to approach a High Conflict Personality?

NH: If we can’t get somebody else to change, which we can’t, it’s about what can we do to make sure we’re in the best possible place to manage this relationship. And that might be to understand and have a bit of empathy for high conflict people, and also to know how they might impact on us. Of course, what usually happens is that we lose confidence very quickly in ourselves and we begin personalising behaviours as well and we become adsorbed also in this dysfunctional relationship to the extent that we think about it constantly. We talk about it constantly and every time we do it disempowers us, and it disempowers us to the extent that people often have to seek medication for anxiety of depression if they can’t leave their jobs. It’s just all encompassing, really.

It takes practise. It takes a lot of discipline. It takes some understanding of where you go in yourself and this is why if you catch it early it’s a lot easier to work with somebody who feels disempowered. Just simply understanding the relationship has huge benefits because you realise it isn’t actually about you. It’s about managing the situation, (for example, learning) how to manage yourself in that meeting, how to manage that case file, where to get support. Managing your own reactions is really, really important. So, understanding how you might fall into a place of fear, and then (take steps to ensure you’re not) transferring that.

QU: If I am a manager and I can see staff are unhappy because they are working with a High Conflict Personality, what should I do?

NH: For the High Conflict Personality you need to create a lot more structure around your meetings and your interactions. You need to keep careful notes of times of meetings and what happened in meetings. You need to be transparent with them, create as much predictability as possible because when we’re under threat we can get anxious very quickly. One of the markers of safety is around transparency and predictability, so you’ll want to build that in.

For the rest of the team, we don’t want to give the person with high conflict more energy, more resources than the rest of the team because the workplace is a little like a family. You can’t favour the child who screams the loudest, other people feel like they’re not looked after and it’s not fair. This is often what you hear so, as a manager, you will have to direct your energies as evenly as possible but in a different way. Of course, you can’t favour (the non-conflict staff) either. We like to favour people or children that are compliant because they’re easier to manage. So we have to be very aware of how we are managing any personality in a team because we all favour the personalities that make our job easier.

QU: And for the team member who works with a High Conflict Personality, who should they get support from and how?

NH: Certainly (they should go to) the manager, because you can’t give a High Conflict Personality feedback. They’ve probably tried and it’s not gone well. So you do need a manager who will listen and is understanding of this type of relationship personality. And then there are things like Workplace Supervision, which is what I do, to gain that kind of one-on-one bespoke look at what is happening according to them and their personality in relation to yours and the impact on the team.

QU: Would you pull aside the High Conflict Personality?

NH: It is about gentle and firm coaching, bearing in mind that feedback is interpreted negatively and also there is little, if no, ability to self reflect.

QU: Is there no way of opening their eyes to the reality of things?

NH: Well, if we are blind to our own blindness, as Daniel Kahnemean says in Thinking Fast and Slow, we cannot see what we cannot see.

QU: If the High Conflict Personality is my boss what are my options?

NH: Definitely I’d want you to seek support from somebody. Sometimes you’ve got to go above your boss, if the boss has the High Conflict thinking. It’s very difficult if there is nobody above your boss. Then you would have to seek external support, and again it would be looking at all the different things that you can do within your role that you have any control over to make your life more manageable.

What often happens is that people are the target of blame or under the spotlight for a period of time, and then it shifts to somebody else. And I’ve had experiences of a team leader that will put each person in her team under the spotlight for about three months, and will actually go and sit next to that person. I never did any work with that particular person but I saw probably everybody else in her team. And some really tremendous things happened, which was that the team members all started using each other for support. They couldn’t go to their team manager for various things but they knew they had to give the impression of doing that. They knew that when they went into coaching they would just quietly accept but disregard some of the stuff that went on, that anything that was inaccurately put in the notes, they would make sure that that was corrected and it was accurate. And then they would also keep their own reference notes of what happened in meetings to get some kind of paper trail, and to bring some balance back. But it was about managing that until they stopped being the focus and somebody else became the focus.  So, there’s a lot of letting go, a lot of sucking it up. Try to reduce venting, which doesn’t help the anger go away and it cements the impotency of the situation.

Once we’re involved in a really dysfunctional relationship it can absorb every single box in our lives. And that’s what you want to avoid. You want to try to keep the balance and reduce that power to avoid being consumed by it.

QU: So, in a nutshell, what are your do’s and don’ts when it comes to working with a High Conflict Personality?

NH: The first thing is to get support, don’t manage it alone and don’t think that it is all your fault. Get support to get a different perspective on it. What don’t you do?  Think that the relationship will get better by itself. It will need careful management.


Desiree Blackett, Director of Operations CCER with Nicola Hartfield, Dispute Resolution Expert at the Managing High Conflict Personalities workshop

Desiree Blackett, Director of Operations CCER with Nicola Hartfield, Dispute Resolution Expert at the Managing High Conflict Personalities workshop

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