Negotiation and Workplace Incivility

Negotiation and Workplace Incivility
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In an ideal world, it’s easy to come up with a solution that would 100% satisfy the interests and needs of the parties in conflict. But in reality: few issues are cut-and-dried. Each party will has a valid point to be acknowledged, and some sacrifices must be made. But in order to ensure that the position of the parties in conflict are communicated clearly and argued persuasively, each person must have negotiation skills in his or her arsenal.

In this article, you will be presented with ways you can manage conflicts, which are a common source of uncivil behavior, in your workplace. Among these ways are mediation, arbitration, and creative problem-solving.

Three Sides to Incivility

Whenever you’re in disagreement or conflict with another person, it always helps to remember that there are always three sides to an issue:

Your side

The other person’s side

The truth

Your side vs. the other person’s side: First off, it’s important to recognize that you have a unique point of view of a situation, and the other person also has his or her own unique take. What is true for you is not necessarily true for the other person. This is because we all have different life experiences, personalities, ways of interpreting and valuing what is happening around us. For instance, you may not be accusing your work partner of slacking off by joking about his extended lunch break; but your office mate may have felt insulted by what he perceives is a dig at his work ethics.

More so, no one is all-knowing; there’ll always be information that you may have missed.

That there are at least two sides to a story makes dialogue critical when managing workplace incivility. You can’t make an informed judgment about a situation unless you’ve heard the other party present his or her case, and you’re able to make yours. As with the example raised in the previous paragraph, dialogue could clarify that no offense was intended with the joke you made. Dialogue can also appraise of needed boundaries when it comes to making jokes at co-worker’s expense, e.g.  What’s funny to you is not necessarily funny to others.

The Truth: But remember, it’s not enough to just listen to the sides of the individuals or groups in conflict. You should also consider the possibility that what actually happened is more, less or even totally different than what you both think!

How come a third side, the truth, is possible? There are many reasons.

For one, parties in conflict are not always objective when it comes to perceiving situations where they are affected. Anger, frustration, and biases can color one’s view of the situation that it’s no longer accurate. It’s easy, for example, to vilify a co-worker who has hurt you, to the point that you perceive his or her offense as graver than what it actually is.

Second, because there are at least two sides to a story, each person’s account is just a piece of the puzzle. There is a need to integrate your side and the other person’s side to get a more complete idea of what is really happening.

And lastly, all organizations are systems, and in systems realities are influenced by every person in the organization. Thus, conflicts between two people don’t exist in a vacuum. Bad management decisions, co-workers who aggravate the situation with unfounded gossip, and even the silence of the people who must speak up, all contribute to the perception of the persons in conflict. Even environmental elements, such as a cramped working space and extreme weather conditions can be a factor in the emergence of an act of incivility.

Knowing that there is three sides to incivility helps parties in conflict appreciate win-win situations. With a third side, the truth, no one person is completely right and the other completely wrong.


Mediation is a way of dispute resolution wherein an objective third party, called the mediator, is invited to assist parties in conflict come to an accord.

In some cases, the mediator is merely there to facilitate the process, e.g. get both sides to sit together and have a constructive dialogue regarding the area in contention. But in other cases, mediators are called for their expert opinion. At the end of the day, however, a mediator’s opinion in only suggestive in nature and doesn’t carry legal weight unless the parties in conflict concede that the mediator can create or suggest legally enforceable actions. Regardless, decisions reached through mediation can still be contested in court.

Done correctly, mediation can create a collaborating style of managing conflict between the parties in disagreement.

Mediation is an excellent way of addressing cases of incivility in the workplace. For one, it is relatively inexpensive compared to litigation. It can also keep sensitive disputes in a company private — a court case runs the risk of damaging the organization’s reputation. Mediation also has room for atypical solutions to a conflict, as in a court case, the judgment is limited to the bounds of law.

Mediators can come from within the company, or you can hire professional consultants for the job. There are mediators who specialize in work-related disputes, and can provide insight on not just the issue in contention but also related concerns such as legalities based on labor laws, effective techniques for solving the problem as experienced by other companies with similar problems and industry-specific considerations.


Arbitration, like mediation, is a form of alternative dispute resolution. Like mediation, arbitration requires the presence of a third party to help settle the conflict; this third party is called the arbiter. However, unlike mediators who sometimes merely facilitate dialogue, arbiters are required to make a judgment on the case, and their judgment is final and binding. Because of this, arbiters must have expertise on law, adjudication and when applicable, company policy.

In order to have a constructive conflict resolution procedure through arbitration, it’s important that many key issues regarding the process are settled before the arbitration proper. For instance, it must be decided and agreed-upon how the arbiter is going to judge the matter: Is he or she going to weigh interests? Would the arbiter be using a particular contract or policy for reference? Making this information clear from the onset can help ensure fairness and prevent allegations of being placed at a disadvantage.

Like mediation, arbitration is a less costly alternative to going to court. It also tends to be speedier and more private.

There is a big risk in arbitration however. In an ideal world, parties in conflict must volunteer for the process. However, in actual practice, there is the possibility of persons in power bullying the disadvantaged to sit in an arbitration procedure and passively accept its results.

Creative Problem-Solving

There are occasions, when the best way to handle conflict or disagreement in the workplace is by coming up with an original and/or out-of-the-box solution. Sticking to systems one is used to, and refusing to try out something new, is often the reason why real and lasting change in a company doesn’t happen.  This is why, as much as possible, organizations must utilize the Creative Problem Solving Process or CPS.

The Creative Problem Solving Process, also called the Osborn-Parnes Process based on the names of its developers, is a structured method for coming up with novel and yet effective solutions to problems. As the term implies, the process is a marriage of using one’s imagination to come up with something novel and getting the issue resolved.

Like many other scientific techniques of problem-solving, CPS relies on the process of:

Careful analysis of the problem

Development of potential solutions

Selection of a workable solution

Testing and implementation

An example of a creative problem-solving technique is Synectics. It was developed by William Gordon, and it is an approach to generating ideas that involves the use of analogies and metaphors.

Here’s an example: Synectics has a procedure called Transfer of Analogy: the analysis of two seemingly unrelated processes to check if they are comparable in some respect. You can compare, for example, fighting cancer to fighting gossip.  A manager can tell his staff members: “If gossip is a cancer and we are oncologists, how will we approach the situation?” Transfer of analogies help groups come up with solutions they otherwise wouldn’t have come up with.


More About Civility in The Workplace

Introduction to Workplace Civility
Effective Work Etiquette
Costs and Rewards of Workplace Civility
Conflict Resolution at The Workplace
Getting to the Cause of Incivility
Writing a Workplace Civility Policy
Implementing the Workplace Civility Policy