Causes of Workplace Conflict: Why personality isn’t as important as you might think

I don’t know how many times I’ve clicked on an article about workplace conflict only to be told that “personality” or “personality differences” are a major cause.

The belief that one “bad apple” is responsible for conflict or that personality differences are a major source of trouble is, in its own way, comforting. If all that is needed to stop conflict is to remove one individual or ensure that certain people never have to work together, then workplace conflict doesn’t seem like such a hard problem.

I have to admit that sometimes, it is actually the case that removing one person can make a huge difference. But this happens less frequently than you might imagine. Think about it: You probably come across people every day with whom you have “personality differences” – neighbours, family members, friends-of-friends, colleagues. I doubt that you have conflicts with all of them. Most of us easily navigate personality differences and get along with various kinds of people, even if we realize that we will never be close friends.

So if “personality” isn’t the cause (or the main cause) of workplace conflict, why do such conflicts arise? When I analyze a workplace conflict, I look at the following factors. They may not all apply in every situation, but usually more than one will be relevant.

Values: These are strongly held convictions about the things that matter most. They could be about politics, religion, morality, or even about the best way to raise children. While these kinds of personal convictions may not come up at work, differing values about the mission and direction of the organization are often a source of conflict.

Interests: This means anything that an individual wants, needs, hopes or fears. It could be money (in the form of a salary increase, a bonus, or a bigger departmental budget). It could be career advancement. It could be the fear of losing one’s job. It could be a desire for prestige or a fear of letting the organization down.

Relationships:  By this I mean a history of negative or positive interactions between individuals. If two people have had conflicts in the past, and these weren’t handled effectively, there can be lingering effects.

Externals: These are factors outside the organization that might influence conflict within it. They might be factors that effect everyone, such as a weak economy. Or they might be factors that influence only specific individuals, such as health concerns or family issues.

Data: Incorrect or incomplete information has been an aspect of nearly every conflict I have mediated. When people are working with different or inconsistent data sets, conflicts can easily arise. And to add to the confusion, people in conflict often have no idea that the other side may have different information.

Structure: Organizational factors are tricky to discuss and can be difficult for people to see. Sometimes the very way in which work and workplace relationships are organized can cause conflict. Structural factors are one of the main reason to bring in outside help in resolving a conflict. An outsider can see the makings of a conflict in what looks (to an insider) like “the way we’ve always done things.”

Leave a comment below and tell me what you think causes workplace conflict.

Condo Law Digest – March 2015

Bascula 8.jpgDyke v. Metropolitan Toronto Condo. Corp. No. 972, 2015 ONSC 732
Decision Date: January 30, 2015

This motion refers back to Justice Morgan’s 2013 finding on behalf of the applicant in her noise complaint against the condo corporation. (To make a long story short, the source of the noise was a professional dance studio situated in the unit above the applicant’s. The dance studio moved in November 2013.) This action turns on whether the corporation “disregarded, intentionally violated, or otherwise flouted” the order. While the corporation may have been “a tad slow or bureaucratic” their conduct does not rise to the standard of contempt. The judge awarded costs of $20 000 to the corporation; they had sought $97 000 on a substantial indemnity basis or $66 000 on a partial indemnity basis. The applicant has also made a claim for damages against the corporation, which will be heard together with a separate action she has brought, naming additional parties.

Comment: The applicant continues to be bothered by noise originating from the unit upstairs. (Ordinary residential noise, rather than noise associated with a dance studio.) The judge reaffirmed the position that condominium dwellers are entitled to “quiet enjoyment” but not silence.

Toronto Standard Condominium Co. No. 1487 v. Market Lofts Inc., 2015 ONSC 1067
Decision Date: Feb 18, 2015

This is a request for summary judgment to enforce a Shared Services Agreement between the plaintiff and the defendant. Under the 2001 agreement both premises were to share costs related to shared facilities and services (including the roof, the foundation, the hot water tank, and some of the alarm monitoring system). The agreement seems to have been ignored by the plaintiff’s property manager at the time; the failure to enforce it was also an oversight or failure by TSCC’s board. In late 2010/2011, a new property management team noticed the Agreement and prepared a claim for payment by the defendant in the amount of over $162, 000. The defendant refused to pay, claiming that there was a “common understanding” that each party would take care of its own expenses. Justice Perell found no evidence of such an understanding, and granted the summary judgment motion.

Valentina Vasilescu Tarko et al. v. Metropolitan Toronto Condominium Corporation 626 et al., 2015 ONSC 982
Decision Date: Feb, 13, 2015

This is an appeal of a small claims court decision. MTCC 626 is the condominium corporation for Renaissance Plaza, a mixed use building with residential and commercial units, retail space, office space and an indoor parking garage. Some of the condominium owners had parking arrangements which were automatically renewed each year, and others had monthly parking which could be terminated by either side. The owner of the monthly parking spaces terminated the agreement; MTCC commenced litigation and was unsuccessful. To pay the “significant” legal costs, the Board created a Special Assessment on individual condominium owners of $7 per square foot. The appellants disagreed with the Special Assessment and circulated an open letter arguing against it; the unit owners ratified the Special Assessment at the Annual General Meeting on May 30, 2011. On June 28, 2013 the appellants commenced a small claims court action. The Deputy Judge stayed the claim, as it was issued 25 months after the AGM. (The Limitations Act specifies that ordinarily a claim may not be commenced more than 2 years after a claim is discovered.) The basis of this appeal is that the claim did not take effect until July 1, 2011, when the first installment of the Special Assessment was due. The judge rejected the appeal and awarded costs of $5000 to the respondents.

Information about the image:

Bascula 8” by L.Miguel Bugallo Sánchez ( – self made, Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Will Mediation Make it Worse?

Elephant Charging by Vikram Gupchup

Sometimes the people who reach out to me recognize that they’re in a bad situation, but they fear that trying mediation (or some other type of intervention) will only make things worse.

There is a powerful appeal to simply living with the devil one knows. These people are coping. They know that things could be better, but they haven’t reached a crisis point where some kind of intervention seems necessary. If you’ll forgive another cliché, they see the elephant in the room but they fear that talking about it might provoke the elephant and cause a scene. And so they resolve to handle things as best as they can, sometimes venting to sympathetic friends and family.

The fear that intervening in a situation will make it worse is far from irrational. Sometimes an intervention does makes things worse. We’ve all heard about the person who went into hospital for some relatively minor matter and ended up with an antibiotic resistant infection.

Hospitals aside, for the most part only ill-timed or inept interventions make a conflict situation worse. When I first meet with clients and hear the history of their conflict, there is often a point at which a bad but stable situation deteriorates and becomes untenable. I can often trace that point of deterioration to some kind of intervention that went wrong. Maybe a manager intervened between two co-workers in a way that revealed a bias. Maybe harsh things were said that the speaker now regrets. Maybe an investigation didn’t probe deeply enough and felt more like a whitewash than an impartial inquiry.

So I can well understand the feelings of those who would rather put up with a difficult situation than take steps to change it. Once the elephant in the room has been acknowledged there is no going back to the days when everyone could see it but said nothing. That anticipation can increase anxiety.

When I’m working with a client who is struggling about whether to raise an issue or continue to live with things as they are, I often ask them to do this: Imagine it is one year from now. You’re getting up and getting ready for your day, and you know that this same issue is still alive. Nothing about it has changed. How do you feel?

Sometimes, when I ask someone to do this thought experiment, their face falls and they look stricken. The thought of living another year and confronting the same issue is just too much. At that point, they realize that they had better do something. Inaction and “coping” are no longer viable options, and they’re ready to let me help them.

An intervention by a mediator who has the skills, experience, and objectivity to assess a situation is unlikely to make things worse. A good mediator will help you send the message that you want to send, make sure that everyone has a chance to share their perspective, and generally ensure mutual respect.

Conflicts rarely go away on their own. You have to take action to resolve them, but you don’t have to do it on your own.

Condo Law Digest – February 2015

Athene cunicularia 1 edited.JPG
Athene cunicularia 1 edited” by Wagner Machado Carlos Lemes from Goiânia, Brazil Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.



90 George Street Ltd. v. Ottawa-Carleton Standard 815, 2015 ONSC 336
Decision Date: January 16, 2015

This is an appeal of an arbitrator’s award. According to the Condominium Act, a condominium’s declarant (in this case the developer, 90 George Street Ltd.) must prepare disclosure statements for each purchaser, including a budget for the first year of operation. The declarant is responsible for covering the shortfall between the projected budget and the actual costs. Audited financial statements for OCSSCC 815’s first year showed a shortfall of about $115,000. Mediation was not successful so the dispute went to arbitration by the Honourable James Chadwick Q.C. He found in favour of the condominium corporation for the amount of the shortfall plus interest and costs. In this decision, Justice Smith upheld the arbitrator’s decision, including the decision to award costs on a substantial indemnity basis, noting that OCSCC 815 made two offers to settle (for less than they were awarded) before arbitration.


1420041 Ontario v. 1 King West, 2015 ONSC 252
Decision Date: January 27, 2015

This is a decision on a summary judgment motion, with parties agreeing that summary judgment is appropriate. In 2000-01, the plaintiff purchased 8 units in Toronto Standard Condominium Corporation 1703 from the defendant. In 2005, dissatisfied with construction of the common elements, as well as with elements in its individual units, the plaintiff commenced an action against 1 King West. In 2005 TSCC 1703 commenced its own action against 1 King West (and other defendants) on behalf of itself and the individual unit owners, seeking damages of about $16 million. This action settled in the summer of 2011. TSCC 1703 agreed to release 1 King West from “any and all” claims made in the action, in respect of any and all construction deficiencies, etc. (In the meantime, there was some legal “back and forth” regarding the plaintiff’s 2005 claim. Their claims regarding the common elements were struck, on the grounds that only a corporation can bring claims for damages to common elements. The claims regarding the individual units were allowed to go ahead.)

The issue now before Justice Firestone was whether the release in the action brought forward by TSCC 1703 precludes the plaintiff from pursing its own action (commenced back in 2005). He found that it did not. The settlement entered into by TSCC 1703 should not be interpreted as releasing the rights to a separate action, unique to an individual unit owner. The corporation protects the interests of unit owners as a whole, not their interests as individuals.

Condo Law Digest – January 2015

National Institute of Standards and Technology, via Wikimedia Commons

D.L.G. & Associates Ltd. v. Minto Properties Inc., 2014 ONSC 7287
Decision Date: December 16, 2015

In February 2011 DLG, which operated a franchised restaurant, signed a ten-year lease in a mixed commercial and residential property owned and operated by Minto. The lease included a provision that DLG maintain insurance coverage against “all risks.” The restaurant opened in July 2011. In early October the sewer backed up and flooded the restaurant. The resulting damage, clean-up, and reconstruction meant that the restaurant was closed until early December 2011. Minto covered the costs but declined to follow plumbers’ recommendation to install a backflow preventer. DLG’s insurer revoked coverage for flood and sewer back-up; Minto acknowledged the cancellation and accepted continuation of the lease. In September 2012 there was a second sewer back-up and the restaurant was again closed. DLG advised Minto that it was in danger of losing its franchise and that the franchisor had demanded payments over $36,000. Minto denied liability and insisted that DLG continue to perform obligations under the lease agreement. In November the franchisor terminated the franchise; DLG informed Minto that it had elected to treat the lease as terminated.

DLG alleges that it was induced to enter into the lease, that Minto lied regarding previous problems with the plumbing, and that Minto breached its obligation to correct known plumbing problems. They claim against Minto for breach of contract, negligence, negligent misrepresentation, and fraudulent misrepresentation. Minto moved the to have claim dismissed, arguing that DLG’s claims are precluded by the Covenant to Insure in the lease. Judge Perell found in favour of Minto that the Covenant to Insure prevents DLG’s claims for breach of contract, negligence, and negligent misrepresentation; however the claim for fraudulent misrepresentation can stand.

Comment: I will keep readers up-dated if DLG and Minto continue to pursue this through the courts.

Condo Law Digest – December 2014

Toronto Standard Condominium Corporation No. 2130 v. York Bremner Developments Limited, 2014 ONCA 809
Decision Date: November 17, 2014

This is a ruling on an appeal brought forward from the judgment of Justice Matheson. In that decision, Justice Matheson had ruled in favour of the TSCC that an arbitrator be appointed to decide a number of disputes between the parties. Since at least one of the issues was clearly within the arbitrator’s jurisdiction, an arbitrator should be appointed and determine his jurisdiction over the remaining issues. York Bremner Developments have appealed, arguing that Justice Matheson should not have referred all of the disputes to arbitration. Rather, she should have assessed each issue and referred only those that were at least partially arbitrable. The Appeal Court judges disagreed with York Bremner and rejected the appeal. They reasoned that the TSCC’s grounds for appointing an arbitral tribunal included Section 10(1) of the Arbitration Act, according to which there is no appeal from the court’s appointment of the arbitral tribunal.

Comment: The TSCC was awarded costs of $20,000. York Bremner Developments have exercised their right to appeal the arbitrator’s ruling on jurisdiction to the Superior Court.

Street protest march (Ontario condo law blog post)

Rail, tram and public service unions protest march against Public Service Reduction Act by Federal Arbitration Court. Sam Hood via Wikimedia Commons.

Condo Law Digest – November 2014

Banane-A-05 cropped.jpg
Banane-A-05 cropped” by Priwo – photo taken by de:Benutzer:Priwo. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Toronto Standard Condominium Corporation No. 2095 v. West Harbour City (I) Residences Corp., 2014 ONCA 724
Decision Date:  October 22, 2014

This is an appeal from the judgment of Justice Corbett dated September 23, 2013. West Harbour City is a developer, and TSCC 2095 is one of its developments. The condo’s board entered into an agreement with the developer which restricted the rights of owners to sue the builder for deficiencies that were beyond the amounts of the Tarion warranty.  Now, the original board was controlled by the developer’s nominees. When control of the board was turned over to unit owners, they sued to set aside this agreement, arguing that no reasonable board of directors would have agreed to it. Justice Corbett declined to rescind the agreement, saying that a developer was entitled to limit its risk, and that the agreement had been disclosed to perspective buyers and also registered on title. In this judgment, the appeal court unanimously dismissed the appeal. They also stated that whether developers should be allowed to limit their liability in this way is a matter of policy for the legislature to decide, rather than for judicial determination.

Comment: One more reason to get legal advice when buying a condo.  Provisions limiting developers’ liability can have financial impact, should a building turn out to have deficiencies.

Workplace Restoration Case Study

Besenhausen1 DSC0074.JPG
Besenhausen1 DSC0074” by WistulaOwn work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Problem

I was on the phone with Jane, the managing director of a creative firm. She was clearly frustrated. Relations between the account services team and the head of production (“Bob”) were at an all-time low.  People felt anxious about talking to him and would avoid him if possible.  A few had even threatened to quit. The “drama” was a distraction from business.  Jane wanted people to be able to work together collaboratively as a team.  She was tired of responding to complaints about Bob and wasn’t sure what to do.  And she wanted a quick solution before key staff members left for vacation.

Preparing for an Intervention

Pam and I met with Bob.  While he knew there was a problem, he didn’t seem to understand the effect that his behavior was having on the others.  As far as he was concerned, he wanted to do a good job and make sure the company put out a good product.  He understood that he could sometimes get impatient, but he thought that things were being blown out of proportion and that the people in account services were simply too sensitive.  He was willing to work with us because he knew that things could not continue as they had been, and because he was frustrated that the efforts he had already made to modify his behavior seemed to be unrecognized. He was unhappy being seen as the “problem.”

Next we met with the four project managers in account services. Of the four, one got along well with Bob and had no issues with him. Another had a number of ongoing issues with Bob, and there seemed to be a mutual lack of respect between them.  The other two had each experienced a serious incident with Bob in the past. These incidents continued to effect workplace dynamics because they had become the “lens” through which all of Bob’s actions were viewed. The project managers willing to work with us, and willing to sit down with Bob to try to resolve things.

Once we had buy-in from everyone we needed to decide on the right intervention for this group.  Both of us have seen the harm that can come from the wrong intervention or from an intervention done in the wrong way, so we were cautious.  We felt that Bob genuinely wanted to have better relations with the others, and we wanted to make sure that he would not be “shamed” by whatever we did.   We didn’t want the account services team to gang up on him as this would have damaged relations further.  We wanted the intervention to be as positive as possible, yet still make it clear to Bob that he needed to change aspects of his behavior.  And we wanted the account services team to understand how they may have been contributing to the tension.

A Workplace Circle

After some reflection Pam and I decided to use a circle process with this group.  This kind of process has a long history and appears in many cultures throughout the world.  Participants sit in a circle and take turns speaking.  The “circle keeper” directs the conversation by asking questions. All participation is voluntary and participants may choose to remain silent if they wish.

As the circle keeper, I slowly brought the conversation around to issues of respect and particularly respect in the workplace.  With caution, members of the account services team moved away from generalities about respect and about working together and began to talk about their own workplace.  The two team members who had “incidents” with Bob talked about them.  It wasn’t easy, as talking about the past brought back the same emotions as the incidents themselves did. But ultimately, this release of emotion allowed everyone to move on.

As Pam and I had suspected, Bob really hadn’t grasped the effect he was having on others, or the lasting impact of the previous incidents on the current situation.  When he realized that his behavior had been hurtful, he apologized.

One of the advantages of the circle process is that people end up really listening to one another.  Bob heard from the others, and they also listened to him.  The account services team learned that they had made some incorrect assumptions about Bob, and that some of their practices had been making it harder for him to do his job.  Everyone committed to find ways of working together more effectively from then on.

Lasting Results

I called Jane a few days after the circle meeting.  I couldn’t share the specifics of what was said, as we had promised the participants that the circle would be confidential.  But I was able to tell Jane that everyone had participated fully and that Pam and I appreciated the trust they had all put in us.  Jane told me that things definitely had improved.  People seemed less tense and better able to put their energy into work.  I followed up again after a couple of months.  She told me that things had continued to hold and that her job was a bit easier:  “I feel like I can make other changes within the organization that will help us move in a positive direction. I can also focus my energy on other things.”

Names and details have been changed to preserve client confidentiality.

Condo Law Digest – October 2014

Owl Family Portrait by travelwayoflife (Flickr: Owl Family Portrait) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Van Sickle v. Conlon, 2014 ONSC 5437
Decision Date: September 18, 2014

In 2011 the plaintiff and the defendant were Directors on the Board of a Housing Co-op. After a meeting to discuss a possible eviction, Ms Van Sickle took with her a copy of the confidential report discussing the matter. Mr. Conlon sent an email message to the Board members with the subject line, “Verna’s theft of the document from the meeting on Thursday night.” Ms. Van Sickle sued Mr. Conlon for defamation; she won and was awarded $7500. In this appeal, Mr. Conlon challenges the Deputy Judge’s treatment of his defense in the original trial. Mr. Conlon’s defenses were 1) that it was in fact true that Ms Van Sickle had stolen documents; and 2) qualified privilege (that is, he had the right to criticize her to protect the dignity of the Co-op). Deputy Judge Richardson rejected both defenses. Mr. Conlon had a “total and reckless disregard for the truth” and his conduct was found to be “malicious” (hence the defense of qualified privilege was rejected.) Justice Perell, the appeal judge, found no reviewable error and dismissed the appeal. Costs were fixed at $12, 000.

Comment: Although this case involved the Directors of a Housing Co-op (rather than a condominium), all Board Members should take note.

See also: Preventing Conflict on a Condo Board, Strategies for Getting Your Board Un-stuck, and Think Before You Type (about the dangers of e-mail communication).

“How Did We Get to This Point?” (Managing Conflict)

Photo by Jonathan Billinger

The client who asked me this question was an intelligent and caring manager. She sounded genuinely bewildered, and she wanted to know how things had deteriorated between her division and the other team. She was disconcerted that things had “gone off the rails” in such a short time.

And so I reviewed the history with her. There was an incident – angry words from one staff member to another. (The details are unimportant. I’ll call the perpetrator “Bob” and the person on the receiving end “Sally.”) The result was that Sally felt disrespected and hurt. Others in the company either witnessed the incident or heard about it from witnesses. Sally discussed the matter with the company’s HR person, but as far as she knew, no action was taken.

What was the result? What messages did the company send? Bob got the message that his angry outburst was acceptable workplace behavior. Sally got the message that it was OK that she was disrespected, and that even if she stood up for herself and raised a concern, nothing would happen. Others in the company who knew about the incident got the message that disrespectful behavior was tolerated, and that there was no point in going to HR.

What happened next was easy to predict. People who liked Sally (and there were many) felt indignation on her behalf and resentment both towards Bob and towards management for their failure to respond. People who liked Bob felt conflicted because they couldn’t approve of how he had behaved. Everyone was uncomfortable. Nobody wanted to discuss the incident so it became the “elephant in the room.” Bob and Sally had to work together on a regular basis, and the tension between them never went away. Soon that tension had infected others in both departments, and small incidents – the sorts of things that would have been brushed aside in the past – took on outsize importance.

Of course, while my client had been in the middle of the conflict between her division and Bob’s division, she couldn’t see its causal history. She could only see the tension and the effect it was having on workplace relations and on productivity. Once we had gone through the history together, she could easily see where she could have acted differently. Things got to a point she regretted, but I don’t think she will let things get out of hand again.