How to Deal with Workplace Conflict

How to Deal with Workplace Conflict


Conflict at work is a natural result of people from different backgrounds, who have varying opinions working alongside each other. Conflict can have a positive impact or it can create a negative ripple across a work environment. The key to any situation where conflict arises is how it is managed and communicated.

What is Conflict in the Workplace?

Workplace conflict is caused by actual or perceived opposition between two or more people who work together. It could relate to interests, values, beliefs, ideas, or needs. The outcome and impact of discord depend on how it is handled by the individuals involved and management. Thus, conflict can lead to a positive or negative outcome.

There are four types of conflict within the workplace. To resolve conflict one needs to understand what it relates to and, therefore its origins.

Four Types of Conflict

  1. Status Conflict: Disagreement as to who is/should be in charge.
  2. Task Conflict: Disagreement about what needs to be done.
  3. Process Conflict: Disagreement on how something should be done.
  4. Relationship Conflict: Relates to personal feelings.

How is Conflict Expressed at Work?

When conflict at work is left unresolved it can play out in several verbal and non-verbal ways. For example, withdrawal, a lack of cooperation, snide remarks, verbal insults, bullying, poor quality work, delayed submissions and project failure. If left unchecked it is possible that a situation could escalate from an almost indiscernible cold shoulder or avoiding eye contact to physical assault.

Can Workplace Conflict be Positive?

Conflict within a work environment is positive when it’s constructive. It can lead to new ideas, better processes, expanded opportunities, improved decision making and increased creativity. It can also inspire people and spur them into action. This doesn’t mean that conflict is what one should aim for or that it’s good. But rather it means that it can be beneficial. Therefore, conflict is not something to shy away from. And within a workplace positive conflict is possible and can be beneficial.

How to Handle Conflict at Work

Conflict can’t be ignored if you want to resolve it. Pretending it doesn’t exist will lead to it brewing in the background. The result will almost certainly be negative. The extent of its impact usually relates to how long it takes for someone to address it and the perceived fairness of any action taken.

It’s not enough to “order” those disagreeing to stop fighting or resolve their conflict. They need someone to mediate their disagreement so as to find a resolution that everyone can be on board with.

How to Mediate Workplace Conflict

  1. Identify the type of conflict.
  2. Discuss and agree on what the problem is.
  3. Talk about possible solutions.
  4. Agree on a way forward.
  5. Impliment solutions.
  6. If necessary, schedule follow-up session(s) to assess how things are going.

To successfully resolve workplace conflict, there are a few things that need to be in place. The first is to have established ground rules (processes) for resolving conflict. Secondly, an appropriate forum needs to be established to resolve the conflict. For example, a sit-down meeting with those involved and their manager, or an impartial person, to mediate the discussion. And thirdly, it’s often also necessary for those involved to apologise to each other. This helps everyone move on from the disagreement and focus on working together again. Finally, it’s helpful to end a conflict resolution session with a handshake or equivalent gesture.

How Managers Can Make Conflict Positive

To make conflict beneficial it needs to be effectively managed. Specifically, it should be handled respectfully and constructively by management. Communication is key to fostering positive conflict and initial discord should never be allowed to escalate. If disagreements and conflict are left unchecked, a manager’s role will become one of an arbitrator and their focus damage containment.

Three Ways to Foster Positive Conflict

  1. Avoid a win/lose approach. Rather create an environment where common goals are prioritised over individual goals. Focus on creating avenues and solutions where everyone “wins.
  2. Nurture an environment that encourages differences of opinion and variation of ideas. While at the same time focusing on common team goals. This is where company culture can play a key role.
  3. Interpersonal skills training is key to improving communication between team members. Training employees to be proficient in non-defensive communication enables people to be better at discussing seemingly conflicting ideas. Thus, training and upskilling team members, especially in communication skills, reduces the likelihood of conflict being destructive. It can also improve productivity and cohesion within a team.

What Happens When Conflict at Work Cannot be Resolved?

Sometimes, even with a good mediator, conflict can’t be resolved. When this happens one of two solutions can be implemented. The mediator can decide on a way forward that both parties will adhere to. Alternatively, it might be possible for those involved to “agree to disagree” and move on.

How to Avoid Creating Workplace Conflict

Disagreements and differences of opinion are part of life and therefore should be expected within a workplace. However, there are numerous ways to contain it and also de-escalate a situation. Management and HR are pivotal in managing conflict in the workplace.

7 Steps to Preventing Workplace Feuds

  1. When employing a new person, ensure that you screen them properly and have a well-planned interview process. It’s important to determine if they are a good fit for your team and if they will be supportive of the company’s culture.
  2. Good and open communication should be encouraged. Employees need to feel that they can air concerns with each other as well as management.
  3. Monitor and ensure fairness, especially when it comes to the number of hours worked and workloads.
  4. Upskill and train employees in the art of good communication and conflict resolution. Then create an expectation that these skills will be used at work.
  5. Outline grievance processes and ensure that everyone is aware of them.
  6. Have clear guidelines for dealing with conflict or potential conflict.
  7. Set common goals that are task and performance-orientated.

Having an expert external partner can make hiring the right people, first time round easier and more probable. The Key Recruitment Group specialises in assisting with the hiring, onboarding and management of talent that matches a company’s needs and who is a good culture fit. Contact us today to discuss how we can support and help you foster a work environment that leverages positive conflict.