Leaders, Risks of Mislabelling Issues as Personality Conflict

Leaders, Don’t Mislabel All Issues as Personality Conflict

Leaders who are averse to conflict, quickly mislabel interaction issues as — just a personality conflict.

It’s one of those feel good denial reactions that creates additional problems. Mislabelling it as a personality conflict ignites hidden resentments. It also fails miserably as it overlooks the true issues to be resolved. That’s not to say that a personality conflict can’t arise. It can.

Yet there are many other causes of interaction difficulty. People may have different definitions of team and teamwork. There may be low trust or little respect. It’s important to determine the true causes instead of writing it all off to just a personality conflict.

Mislabelled Personality Conflict: Image is cracked eggs.

Not all trouble is a personality conflict. Image by Quinn Dumbrowski

Image by: Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr Creative Commons License.

An Illustration

A new leader (Bill) joined the leadership team. He has 5 peers and each oversees a different department. They and their teams must interact to deliver a wow customer experience. During the first week, Bill makes many demands on the peer he interacts with the most (Pat). He ultimately says to Pat, “I always get my way.”

When Pat requests a more team based approach, Bill takes offense. The high level leader (Lee) meets with Bill and Pat and says, “you two are having a personality conflict.”

Lee made a big mistake. He lost Pat’s trust that day. Assuming that two people who are having a conflict are having a personality conflict solves nothing. It also makes the leader (Lee) look weak and illogical.

What to Do Instead?

  • Establish and Honor a Baseline. Leaders who engage everyone in developing effective baseline behaviors pave the road to success. In today’s culturally diverse workplace, discussions expand understanding and prevent lots of conflicts. Once people establish baseline behaviors, it’s much easier to see errant behavior from a personality conflict.

    Important baseline behaviors to discuss:

    1. Behaviors for shared spaces
    2. Rules on texting during important meetings
    3. Acceptable ways to disagree and discuss strong views
    4. Handling aggressive and passive aggressive behavior

  • Dig to Discover. If the interaction issues in question are not errant behaviors, then find out what’s happening. To do this well, leaders must promise those who speak up that they will not be punished or minimized for the information they offer.

    It works well to have everyone involved to say what they are experiencing and what they would like to experience instead. This prevents gripe fests and discovers workable solutions.

  • Follow-through. Even if you are using HR or outside consultants to help you through this, leaders must stay involved. It is your expectation of improvement and your follow-through that bolsters employees’ commitment. Interaction affects the bottom line.

    Don’t just delegate this to someone and turn away. Assess, inspire, and stay involved.

Risks to Mislabeling Issues as Personality Conflict

  • Divisiveness. When leaders skip over discovering the trouble, the trouble persists. Un-addressed issues fester and feed frustration. Resentment grows as the leaders replace the truth with their assumptions of a personality conflict.

  • Mistrust and disrespect. Employees tap leaders for their insight, objectivity, strength, and honesty. When leaders tap dance around the issue instead of thinking it through, people lose trust and respect for those leaders. The loss of trust lingers and impacts the organization’s results.

  • Self-protection. When someone raises an issue about interaction problems and the leaders quickly pass it off as personality conflict, people think they are being punished for speaking up. After that, those who raised the issues go into self-protection mode. They block the open mindset needed for resolution and organizational success.

  • Weakened Core Values. The modern workplace is sustained with core values of respect, honesty, truth, and accountability. When leaders twist any situation into something it isn’t, it undermines interaction that could otherwise keep the organization moving forward. Whether it’s leader to leader, employee to employee, or leader and employee, discovering the true issues and addressing them appropriately secures the core values of success.

Most everyone can see the value in positive workplace interaction. What some leaders don’t see is that they play a key role in sustaining it through their accurate assessment. This doesn’t mean you are babysitting — a metaphor often misapplied in these moments. You are leading!

There is even evidence to show that employees leave jobs because of mislabelled un-addressed interpersonal issues that have made work intolerable. In the end, leaders who invest in sustaining the core values of interaction inspire collaboration and fuel success.

What other workplace behaviors is it valuable to discuss?

From my professional experience to your success,
Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™

Related Posts:
18 Things Respected Well-Liked Leaders Consistently Do
Leadership to Reverse a Hostile Workplace
Tapping the Profitable Secrets of Personality Types

©2015 Kate Nasser, CAS, Inc. Somerville, NJ. I appreciate your sharing the link to this post on your social streams. However, if you want to re-post or republish the content of this post, please email info@katenasser.com for permission and guidelines. Thank you for respecting intellectual capital.

Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™, delivers coaching, consulting, training, and keynotes on leading change, employee engagement, teamwork, and delivering the ultimate customer service. She turns interaction obstacles into interpersonal success. See this site for workshop outlines, keynote footage, and customer results.


Engage in people skills learning!

Let’s turn interaction obstacles into business success in leadership, teamwork, and customer service experience.

I invite your questions, welcome your wisdom, and look forward to working with you.
~Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™

9 Responses to “Leaders, Risks of Mislabelling Issues as Personality Conflict”

  1. Jon Mertz says:


    You provide such a great service in your blog by highlighting distinctions. The difference between a personality conflict and a project conflict can be overlooked. It may be that two people are proposing two different solutions, and it is not a personality conflict but a real conflict on how to overcome a challenge. Focusing on the “personality” will lead us to solve the wrong issue!

    We get distracted too often from what the reality of a situation and issue may be, and we need to stay focused on the right thing!



    • Kate Nasser says:

      Many thanks Jon. One other person pointed out that I focus on small distinctions that make a big difference and I am grateful that this blogging approach is helping so many.

      I must admit that when I started blogging it wasn’t my plan to focus on distinctions yet it has emerged from so much of my professional and real life experience.

      In this case, the distinction seems small yet has tremendous impact on morale and future collaboration/results.

      FYI: I have encouraged others to read your latest post Go Hard on the Issue and Soft on the Person.

      Regards and thanks,

      • Jon Mertz says:

        It is a great approach, as the distinctions raise real life, leadership considerations.

        Thank you, Kate, and I have linked to your post, too. Jon

  2. Ah, yes, this is really a good topic, Kate. I’ve heard it many, many times in my career. And also as a request, “So how do you handle a ‘personality conflict?’ as if there were some generic, formulaic way to do so. I think it’s a wonderful exercise to simply reflect, “What do we actually mean by ‘personality conflict?’

    When I’ve asked that question and there’s been a real dialogue, we often discover together that it’s not just the system or the project; nor just dueling temperaments, but an organizational “knot” that includes all sides — the work and the people. What’s clear, and I think you are right there, too, is that untangling the work-related or systemic issue profitably comes first; this often reduces the fall-out between people and the true dimensions of the disconnect, mistrust, or competition between the parties becomes more apparent.

    If the leader doesn’t “hold the space” for both kinds of solutions, the leader can easily end up blamed for both parts of the problem. The bottom line? Big emotion between people can signify a host of other problems. Better go look; then help resolve both ways.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Hi Dan,
      This all so common episode deserves the “take a look” approach you suggest. Lumping it all together can also be construed as “I don’t care” or “You’re all being childish.” Digging in and seeing the true source and resolving that way is effective, respectful, and engaging.

      Many thanks for your contribution here. Always glad to read your perspective.

  3. Alli Polin says:

    Excellent, Kate! I’ve recently worked with a client who is constantly undermined by a particular team member. In fact, they do it to nearly everyone on the team, but leadership hasn’t noticed because this individual is busy kissing their you know what (and it’s working). Finally, a few people on the team came forward to talk about the poor behavior of this person and the senior leader chalked it up to a personality conflict. It weakened the leader in the eyes of the team because somehow the experience of four or five people on the team was simply dismissed under the “personality” umbrella. Moreover, my client and his peers were sent the message that no matter what they say, it doesn’t matter… so why bring issues forward.

    I appreciate how comprehensive your article is and that it will help leaders open their eyes not only to other possibilities (other than personality) but to recognize the impact sweeping issues aside has on their leadership.

    Will be sharing!

    ~ Alli

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Hi Alli,
      That is quite a mistake that leader made. When a whole group comes forward to cite issues with one team member’s unproductive behaviors and the leader brushes it under the table, there is a huge leadership problem. It’s quite possible the leader has low emotional intelligence and/or afraid of leading and dealing w/ tough subjects.

      Keep me posted on this one.

      And many thanks for expanding this post with your great example.


  4. Terri Klass says:

    Great article, Kate! Very brave topic to take on!

    Conflict is not always about personalities and as you magnificently state sometimes it may be just inappropriate behaviors that team members use to get what they want. For me, working with leaders who are passive-aggressive “swingers” is the toughest because the result is often misplaced anger and resentment. When we can’t read others, it is always best to not overreact and instead clearly take control of the communication, sharing our points in a respectful way but being direct.

    Thanks Kate!

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Interesting phrase Terri “Swingers” with misplaced anger and resentment. It’s important that leaders are not passive aggressive and for them to help everyone open communication and respectfully work things out.

      Many thanks for your contribution here!

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