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Steve M. Cohen, Ed.D., CMC

Steve M. Cohen Ed.D., C.M.C

Employee Conflict: Fighters vs. Flighters

Here's a simple personality "test" that can help resolve workplace messes.

It’s solid management to address the internal climate of your business. I have no doubt you are aware of this and have put time and effort into team building, empowering and creating a positive climate for your staff. It’s important to you, and it’s important to your staff. So, why are people fighting on occasion or even more frequently? Why are they just not getting along even if it’s more subdued? The answer is simple: they’re people.

It’s human nature and no two natures are exactly the same. Staff will have different tolerance levels, different styles of dealing with conflict and different ways of expressing discontent. Employee training and an atmosphere of trust are a must and helps. Knowing some aspects of different personalities can help, too.

It’s a gross simplification of human nature, but here’s something that’s often helpful at work: personalities can be divided into fighters and flighters. There are different degrees; even fighters are capable of flight and flighters capable of fighting. Still, they each require a different approach.

Fighters tend not to value timid people or timid behavior. Typically, dealing with them requires a direct and powerful approach. Fighters get their power by the force of their will and personality. They could be described as Sherman tanks or exploders (yellers).

Flighters get their power through knowledge. They know how to do things and are necessary to the organization because of this knowledge. You can intimidate them through force of will or personality, but they will just go “underground” and withhold their knowledge. They can be complainers or “snipers” or clams and passive-aggressive, while fighters are simply aggressive.

So what’s an employer to do when conflict arises between staff with these very different styles? Unless the combatants have a high degree of emotional intelligence and maturity, initially encouraging them to meet or bringing them together as you oversee the process usually won’t work to fix things. Ignoring the situation will not help because things will only get worse through neglect.

The answer to this common problem is shuttle diplomacy. Meet with each party alone and determine the truth with the goal of clarity to help find a solution or at least a truce. Go back and forth until you have found a way to, if not solve, at least diffuse the situation until common ground can be found.

In a situation like this, intuition may have told you to bring the two employees together and pound out a solution. This is not the way to do it with adults. The best management practice is actually the opposite. You, as the mediating leader, bring power to the equation but grace each party by not imposing a solution and by listening and understanding each individual’s pain, hurt and needs.

You want and need a smooth-running machine for the climate that creates, but also for efficient use of time and productivity. Trust me—separate and calm is the best way to handle these kinds of disputes.


About the Author

Steve M. Cohen, Ed.D., CMC

Steve M. Cohen, Ed.D., C.M.C., is the president of Labor Management Advisory Group and HR Solutions: On-Call, and the author of Mess Management: Lessons From a Corporate Hit Man.