Report: Many Endemic Workplace Conflicts Are Work of 'Conflict Entrepreneurs'

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Aug 19, 2021
GettyImages-532604275 Angry Pointing Fired Termination Boss

Maybe you've been lucky enough not to encounter any, but many an office has  that one person with the miraculous ability to create and sustain conflicts out of seemingly nothing. A recent report in the Harvard Business Review suggests that some of these people are what the author calls 'conflict entrepreneurs,' and dealing with them can be a delicate process. While conflicts are a reality in any workplace, only some persist to the point where they start coloring everything the organization does, becoming an interminable ulcer, no matter what people try, and never seeming to get resolved, said the author, Amanda Ripley, who wrote the book High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped—and How We Get Out.

Ripley, after observing many such companies, has come to the conclusion that conflict entrepreneurs are people who go out of their way to inflame conflicts, whether for personal power, attention, or sometimes profit. Some are intentional in their actions, while others are lashing out for internal reasons. Ripley believes that they are more common in hospitals, universities, and political or advocacy organizations, though not all of them have such people, and such people can be found in places outside these types.

They are generally identified through a recurring pattern of dysfunction, extreme behavior and perpetual blame: They are quick to accuse, they actively seek validation of their complaints, and they tend to follow an all-or-nothing mindset that leads them to spread rumors and conspiracy theories. 

While the most obvious solution is to simply distance oneself from them, this is not always possible. In such cases, Ripley advises co-workers to avoid the temptation to demonize them, which will likely only make the problem worse. Instead, leaders should try to spend more time with them and seek connections or, failing that, to redirect their energy into something that makes them feel important and meaningful. She also recommended that organizations develop guidelines and procedures for resolving conflict in a productive way, as it's more difficult for conflict entrepreneurs to seize on opportunities when everyone already knows the rules of engagement. 

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