I suggested in a recent blog that some forms of conflict in the workplace were productive and creative, opening the door to innovation. However, I also discussed destructive conflict involving outright aggression/bullying, passive aggression or denial, situations where an approach to conflict resolution is more important. I want to extend our pool of metaphors a little further today by focusing on the role of emotional temperature in workplace conflict.

Think of a sponge cake. Simply mixing the ingredients together at a comfortable room temperature just results in a gloop in which each of the constituents retains its essential structure. Place it in the oven at the right temperature, and the ingredients react with one another to make something completely different. Most of us like sponge cake, but few of us would choose to eat the gloop. We wouldn’t be enamoured with a burnt sponge from an overheated oven either.

Conflict that has become too hot (think raised voices, personal insults, incipient physical aggression) is likely to leave people feeling (metaphorically) burned, while cold hostility freezes the atmosphere (think terse, minimalist statements, active ignoring, frosty silence). Both kill creative debate and collaboration.

The key? The Goldilocks’ solution: make the atmosphere reach the right emotional temperature for dialogue and conversation to take place, rather than recrimination and point-scoring or wordless permafrost.

In a hot conflict, according to professional mediator Mark Gerzon, it’s generally not a good idea to place the protagonists together in the same room to begin with. Fireworks are likely. Seeking robust agreements about the ground rules with each individual separately is a necessary first step.

With cold conflicts, it’s usually OK to start with the protagonists together; but watch out – it’s cold because enormous reserves of energy are going into repressing emotions. The temperature needs to be warmed up, but it can skyrocket suddenly when the repression is lifted.

In Part 2, I’ll elaborate on the steps needed to handle both types of conflict.

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