Fuel Can & Water Can


Conflict has become so much a part of western culture that when it is absent, many look for it in their entertainment and others simply generate it to fill a void.

Conflict is defined as “competitive or opposing action of incompatibles.”  You probably don’t need a definition of conflict from Merriam Webster since you have certainly experienced it.

Business leaders spend an inordinate amount of time and energy managing conflict or better stated, refereeing conflict in the workplace.

Loss Loss Loss

One 2008 study estimated that workplace conflict consume 2.8 hours each week and totals to $359 billion a year. A myriad of books, materials, and consulting services are available on the subject of conflict management, but the cost of conflict in the workplace continues to rise.

Estimated costs probably do not take the full toll into consideration such as lost productivity, loss of skilled employees, employee replacement costs, and much more.

Workplace Culture

C-level leaders and managers at all levels often are not versed in the subject of workplace culture and even fewer understand the intricacies of culture-scaping. Thus, they often find themselves reacting to conflicts and not really getting to the root of the problem. Dealing with workplace culture is a subject of its own but transforming the culture is the best way to reduce conflict.

However, and in the meantime there is a simple conflict management tool…I call it Bucket List Conflict Management.

The Bucket List

No, this is not the bucket list of which you have heard or seen at the movies, but it is very simple and practical. In life and work every person has two buckets available to use in their relationships when conflicts arise.

Bucket One is filled with fuel…

Bucket Two is filled with water…

When one encounters conflict, it is the individual’s choice to choose which bucket to use in each situation. The fuel in bucket one includes things that add to the fire and destruction. These are things like:

  • Incendiary comments
  • Insults
  • Name-calling
  • Intimidation
  • Bullying
  • Boasting
  • Incidental put-downs

For some people, Bucket One may appear to be the first option as they repeatedly cause or escalate conflict using almost any issue or situation. Some of them by nature causes workers around them to in effect “walk on eggshells” in order to prevent an outburst and resulting conflict.

There are other people in the workplace who are peacemakers and artfully put out sparks of conflict before they erupt into a full blown fire.

People who grab Bucket Two are often times tactful, polite, and often encouraging in their comments. But they too sometimes ignite workplace fires of conflict themselves. Of course there are many people in between who seem to use one bucket as often as they do the other.

Which Bucket?

The key to simple conflict management is to make all of the people aware of their two buckets and encourage them to use the water bucket early and often when sparks of conflict first erupt.

Hold everyone accountable for reducing conflict.

No conflict management method will work without accountability, so it is important to hold those initiating conflict accountable. By accountability we mean to emphasize “chosen accountability” promoted by Peter Block in his book Community: The Structure of Belonging.

Creating The Right Atmosphere

For people to choose to be held accountable and to hold others accountable, leaders must create an atmosphere of respect and relationship by applying the principle “treat others the way you want to be treated.”

Firefighters learn early that to extinguish a fire, one part of the fire triangle must be removed—fuel, oxygen, and heat.

Ken Blanchard provides a similar tool in his excellent book The One-Minute Manager that promotes the idea of encouraging people who are “caught doing something right.”

This has the effect of increasing the “water buckets” and reducing the “fuel buckets.”

Encouraging people when they do the right thing while educating everyone to fix conflict before it really starts will go a long way to reduce workplace conflict and increase productivity…and people might even enjoy their work.

Do you find that you and/or your reports are losing time and productivity dealing with workplace conflict? What have you done to reduce workplace conflict? Roughly estimate the cost of workplace conflict in your office or company. How would you educate your people in Bucket List Conflict Management? How would you enlist accountability?

Dr. Tom Cocklereece is CEO of RENOVA Coaching and Consulting, LLC
He is an author, pastor, coach, and leadership specialist
Email | LinkedIn | Twitter | Web | Blog | Book

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