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Countering culture

Some people believe that leadership encompasses the fringe benefits of being the official leader of an organization, while others realize that with leadership comes the responsibility to deal with and resolve conflict in the workplace.

January 6, 2009 
By Les Karpluk


Changing the nature of conflict resolution

Some people believe that leadership encompasses the fringe benefits of being the official leader of an organization, while others realize that with leadership comes the responsibility to deal with and resolve conflict in the workplace.

The ability to relate to staff is a significant factor in the success of a leader. In their book People Styles at Work, Making bad relationships good and good relationships better, authors Robert Bolton and Dorothy Grover Bolton, write that unsatisfactory relationships are the chief cause of failure in all fields of work. And in the fire service, given the multitude of goals and needs there will inevitably be conflict.


As we all know, a department can pay a heavy price for conflict in terms of low morale, decreased productivity, dysfunctional relationships and, in some cases, potential litigation.

Conflict is not something that can be avoided and, unfortunately, few fire service leaders receive formal training in personnel conflict management.

The environment of the department can be drastically impacted by workplace conflict. In their 2003 book, Emerging Systems for Managing Workplace Conflict: Lessons from American Corporations for Managers and Dispute Resolution Professionals, David Lipsky, Ronald Seeber and Richard Fincher define conflict as “nearly any organizational friction that produces a mismatch in expectations of the proper course of action for an employee or a group of employees.” With the climate of a fire station coupled with the bonding of firefighters, there is little doubt that organizational friction will result. It is, in fact, alive and well in the fire service.

Too many times, conflict is created as a result of miscommunication among employees, ambiguous policies, ineffective department goals and poor leadership. The good news is that there is a bright side to conflict; these incidents bring forth new opportunities to improve our communication styles, policies, department goals, and leadership traits.

Kenneth Cloke and Joan Goldsmith suggest in their book Resolving Conflict at Work, A Complete Guide for Everyone on the Job that taking the time to analyze the conflict makes us better able to look beneath the tip of the iceberg to the real underlying issues. These issues add weight to the conflict and by identifying the underlying issues there is a better change of resolving the conflict. This is a paradigm shift from the old conquer-and-win mentality, but today’s fire service leader must understand that conflict can be a journey to improving systems and processes.

Organizational impact
The dark side of conflict is the impact it can have on an organization and its staff. A simple misunderstanding can escalate into lost relationships, a breakdown of trust, decreased productivity, rumours, an increase in employee sick time, grievances and potential lawsuits. The price of conflict is difficult to measure but these problems do cause emotional wear and tear on individuals. Let’s face it – we would rather get along with each other than face conflict and the emotionally draining effects it has on us. Authors Bolton and Bolton note in their book that 75 per cent of the population is different from you. They further identify some differences that are not worse, not better, but just plain different in people that we deal with in the workplace. These include:
•    People think differently;
•    People work at different paces;
•    People communicate differently;
•    People handle emotions differently;
•    People manage stress differently, and;
•    People deal with conflict differently.

Is it any surprise that from time to time we face conflict in our departments? Unfortunately, the fire service still has some antiquated beliefs that need to fall into a specific mould, where members think, act, and socialize in the same manner. Any deviation from this mould creates conflict in the department. Unresolved conflict may cause staff to leave the department, disassociate themselves psychologically or seek alliances in other firefighters, which, in turn, may produce work slow downs and disrupt department objectives. Obviously, this is something a department needs to avoid and only through a paradigm shift can change really occur.

Changing conflict culture
The challenge for today’s fire service leader is to change the view of conflict and create a culture of honesty, open communication, conflict prevention and conflict resolution. We need to move away from the notion that conflict must foster aggressive behaviour, angry responses and a win-lose resolution.

We have a choice, to view conflict negatively or as an opportunity to learn and grow. Because we often become emotionally involved when we are dealing with conflict, the concept of changing the conflict culture in our departments is not easy. In Resolving Conflicts at Work, Cloke and Goldsmith identify that by viewing conflict as a journey we also explore our relationship with our opponents, and discover our “hot buttons” and the reasons we allow them to be pushed. This is the beginning of self discovery, through which we can examine our motives and values toward the organization and those with whom we work.

Understanding who we are and how we are wired is a fundamental process in resolving conflicts. The proactive leaders in the fire service are in tune to their interpersonal communi-cation styles and how they play a critical role in preventing and resolving conflicts.

Once conflict is viewed as an opportunity to learn and not as an aggressive assault on who we are as individuals, the first step to changing the conflict culture has already been taken. Without this shift in our thinking, our departments will stagnate and leaders will become ineffective. Our profession deserves nothing less from the men and women in our departments. 

Les Karpluk, CFO, BAppBUS: ES is fire chief of Prince Albert Fire and Emergency Services. He is a graduate of the certificate in fire service leadership and fire service administration programs at Dalhousie University and graduate of the Bachelor of Applied Business: Emergency Services from Lakeland College. Contact him at

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