Ultimate Guide To Dealing With Conflict In The Workplace

Avoiding unresolved conflict is rarely a good idea.

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Last updated: February 16th, 2024

conflict in the workplace

Last updated: February 16th, 2024

Reading Time: 12 minutes

Have you ever heard yourself saying, “I don’t get paid enough to deal with this”? This frustration arises when a colleague repeatedly rubs you the wrong way. If workplace conflict keeps you up at night or you dread returning to work, you need to improve your conflict resolution skills.

However, not all conflict is negative. Organisational change and conflict are two sides of the same coin.

Seventy-six percent of workers report conflict leading to improvements, and 9% say it has led to the birth of a major innovation.

The key to success is learning to identify the root causes of conflict and managing it appropriately. Let me show you how.

Important!

Unresolved conflict doesn’t disappear. It festers and manifests in resentment, withdrawal or passive-aggressive behaviours. You must learn to embrace conflict – especially if you aspire to senior leadership ranks.

The Three Types Of Conflict & Their Layers.

Let’s start by shedding the unrealistic belief that you can avoid workplace conflict altogether.

Conflict is ubiquitous – you’ll encounter it in every team of every organisation.

American psychologist Daniel Katz argues that conflict broadly arises in three forms:

  • Economic conflict. Occurs when peers compete to attain scarce resources (e.g., two employees competing for a management vacancy).
  • Value conflict. An incompatibility in the way of life, such as ideologies, morals, and values (e.g., workplace dispute over the company’s marketing strategy).
  • Power conflict. When a party tries to maximise its influence in a relationship or social setting (e.g., a manager exercises undue influence to settle a personal vendetta).

The layers of conflict.

Beneath these three types of conflict, you’ll find nuanced layers that are influenced by the dynamic of the parties involved. Conflict can be:

Interpersonal conflictWhen two people have beef with one another.
Intrapersonal conflictA psychological conflict that takes place within a person’s mind; ever lie awake at night or stand in the shower thinking about all the things you really wanted to say to that other person?
Intergroup conflictWhen two or more different groups clash in their approach or opinions.
Intragroup conflictThis happens between two individuals within the same tribe.

Each type and each layer of conflict warrants a different approach.

The North Star Of Workplace Conflict Management.

You’re only human and can’t switch your inner emotions on and off on a whim – but you can control your outer behaviour and be respectful.

Dr Schulze and his team collected data from 152 researchers who work in reputable German institutions. They came up with a quiz and proscribed the respondents with a label:

  • Dominating – high respect for self, low respect for others.
  • Problem-solving – high respect for self, high respect for others.
  • Compromise – medium respect for self, medium respect for others.
  • Obliging – low respect for self, high respect for others.
  • Avoidance – low respect for self, low respect for others.

Those in the “Problem-solving” category have higher self-respect and respect for others. Use this as the North Star to guide you to being more respectful.

In short: absence of respect = presence of conflict.

So, how can we be more respectful to others as well as ourselves when we address conflict?

How To Manage Conflict.

I won’t spoon-feed you here with a list of self-evident examples and namby-pamby conflict resolution steps (Step 1: Make eye contact; Step 2: Find common ground; Step 3: Practise active listening…).

Your style is unique to you – whether you’re authoritarian, paternalistic, democratic, or laissez-faire.

If your style is Kim Jong Un, acting like Jacinda Ardern will come across as downright weird when trying to resolve conflict.

(Just to be clear, I’m an advocate of neither.)

Carry these philosophies with you into your intellectual battles to ensure you remain respectful.

1. You must be dispassionate.

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of sitting in a courtroom for jury service or in a public gallery, you might have heard the judge instruct the jury by saying, “Your duty is to be dispassionate”.

What do judges mean by that, to be dispassionate?

It means judging a situation based on facts, not opinions.

It’s synonymous with critical thinking and scientific methodology.

I was slightly mortified when one fellow juror insisted that the defendant ought to be let off the hook on the grounds that “He was only a young lad,” perhaps because, as she said herself, he reminded her of her troubled grandson.

This defendant had smashed another bloke’s head in with a baseball bat, by the way.

True story (though I wish it wasn’t).

Although she meant well, her compassion clouded her judgement.

Important!

You might despise someone’s political viewpoints, hairstyle, or screechy voice – or favour them because they remind you of your grandson – but such things should never influence your ability to arrive at a rational conclusion.

2. Nobody is the villain in their own story.

I believe most people have legitimate reasons for why they behave the way they do.

Nine out of 10 workers would sacrifice some of their earnings to do more meaningful work.

That tells you that people generally want to cooperate and do a good job.

So, imagine giving someone a verbal warning for their poor punctuality only to find they’re late because they’ve been supporting with school drop-offs for their niece because their parents have been involved in a critical accident.

Some things are way more important than your existing problem.

How should you go about resolving conflict, then?

Here’s a really simple technique I use when addressing difficult conversations: the Five Whys principle. Ask “why?” to every successive answer five times.

Why is his behaviour inappropriate?Because it’s unfair to the rest of the team, and it’s affecting staff morale and productivity.
Why is he unable to get to work on time?He said that he was stuck in traffic, but he’s never had any issues getting to work on time for the last nine years.
Why is he getting to work late?Maybe he has some personal issues that mean he is no longer able to commute at the same time.
Why hasn’t he spoken about his lack of punctuality?He could be too emotional or too embarrassed about what’s causing him to be late.
Why would he feel like that?Maybe something serious has happened that he doesn’t want to talk about.

This process leads you to a better understanding and helps you avoid unnecessary conflict.

How to manage the expectations of your team.

Other colleagues will be looking in from the outside. They might be expecting you to punish the employee, without knowing the full details.

You may feel like you have your hands tied.

But if you don’t communicate with the wider team, they may see this as an opportunity to flout the rules themselves and say, “If Robbie can get away with it, why should we bother turning up to work on time?”

Here’s how to nip that in the bud:

  • Gather the team together for a quick debrief.
  • Explain to them that you are dealing with the situation privately.
  • Don’t share any sensitive information about the colleague’s personal issues.
  • Ask them to refrain from probing the colleague with personal questions.
  • Invite the team to join you in supporting your colleague without over-egging it.

It’s a good idea to follow up with your team if anything changes or any new information comes to light.

(Related: How To Maximise Your Team’s Performance).

3. Let them save face.

If you’re winning an argument, don’t go for the jugular.

In How To Win Friends & Influence People, the classic published in 1936, one of the most profound tenets of Carnegie’s teachings is:

“Let the other person save face.”

Too often, we ride roughshod over other people’s feelings just to get our own way. We find fault, criticise, and issue threats without considering the pain we inflict on the other person.

If you want to become public enemy #1 in your workplace, go fight every single trivial battle and show no mercy.

Expert Tip.

Accruing a list of enemies will hurt your own standing in the social hierarchy.

How do you hope to secure a promotion if the hiring manager is drinking buddies with the colleague whom you publicly chastised for turning up late?

Small world.

(Related: How To Write An Employee Reference Letter).

When Conflict Is Good.

If you’re in a leadership role or want to be an effective leader one day, this one’s for you.

Until now, we’ve painted conflict in a bit of a depressing light. Not all conflict needs to be swept under the rug. Symptoms of a lack of conflict include:

  • Employees who aren’t passionate enough about the business to make a stand.
  • Stakeholders who are too afraid to talk over fear of repercussions.

A disagreement doesn’t always need to be destructive. That energy can be channelled into challenging the status quo and exploring a new perspective.

(Related: 100 Thank You Message Ideas For Your Colleagues).

Conflict is the playground of the maverick.

During conflict, we raise questions about new ideas and achieve breakthroughs in thinking.

Back in 1997, Apple almost filed for bankruptcy before Steve Jobs joined the company again (after being fired in 1985 by the board, team members who he himself appointed).

After plummeting sales, Jobs injected some life into the company with a rebrand and the launch of the new iMac.

You know the rest. Most of you are using one of his devices to read this right now.

Dan Helfrich, CEO of Deloitte Consulting LLP, says it best:

“The creation of a productive work environment where people willingly share contrary ideas… if you can create that environment, you have magic results.”

(Related: How To Write An Employee Termination Letter).

The difference between tension and friction.

Social environments are dynamic: tension is healthy conflict, friction is unhealthy conflict. When you’re experiencing tension, colleagues are moving towards the same goal but often have different means of getting there.

It feels:

  • Uncomfortable yet productive.
  • Like you’re being stretched and challenged.

Friction is when colleagues are unmotivated to move towards the same goal, and it feels as though:

  • Nobody values each other’s opinions.
  • Like people are antagonising one another.

Knowing the difference between tension and friction will save you a lot of trouble. If there is conflict in the workplace, and no one is listening, changing, or evolving, results will stagnate.

So will your career.

You must cultivate tension if you want your team to thrive.

How To Pick Your Battles.

You can’t just go into battle with everyone over every trivial frustration.

Sun Tzu quote (the ancient Chinese general and military strategist) says, “He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.”

Before engaging, you should consider the risk versus reward.

And there’s one question you should ask yourself that will help you determine the trade-off.

The all-important question.

Before you engage in workplace conflict, ask yourself, “What’s in it for me?” Asking that helps you frame what you have to gain and lose. Quite often, we have more to lose than gain.

Seventeenth-century author Jonathan Swift says, “One enemy can do more hurt than ten friends can do good.”

Some people set out to make a tonne of friends, but a more strategic angle would be to focus on making the fewest enemies.

That doesn’t mean you have to pussyfoot around others, though.

You already have the emotional intelligence required.

You’re already in the habit of picking your battles.

When the McDonald’s cashier forgot to give you ketchup with your order, but you only realised after you’d left the drive-thru, do you drive back and yell at them or get on with your day?

Trivial, right?

Some would drive back and go berserk, others would let it slide.

We all have different tolerance levels. What are yours? Is it possible that someone is being annoying, or is it possible that you’re way too emotionally invested?

Have you ever seen Elon Musk lose his shit in public or during an interview?

Well, yes, once or twice.

But Jeff Bezos? Mark Zuckerberg? Warren Buffett?

Never.

Important!

These are some of the world’s richest men. They didn’t get to where they are by lashing out at every turn, despite being constantly provoked. They’re consummate practitioners of emotional restraint. Emulate them.

The consequences of resolving conflict and ignoring it.

If you’re prepared to defend your viewpoint and assert yourself, you need to know the potential consequences.

  • Beating someone in an argument is humiliating for them.
  • Conflict is emotionally draining and impacts your well-being.
  • Further tension can arise and decrease the morale of the team.

But what are the consequences of not engaging?

  • Turning a blind eye makes you look like a pushover.
  • If you sit there and do nothing, the problem could well escalate.

Either way, we don’t have a crystal ball.

Humans are so unpredictable. The only behaviour you can control is your own. Is the likelihood of making an enemy high? If so, what kind of problems might such a person cause you if you do engage?

How To Hold People To Account Respectfully.

Patrick Lencioni, the author of the bestseller The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, developed a framework that shows the main obstacles preventing teams from reaching success.

  • Absence of trust.
  • Fear of conflict.
  • Lack of commitment.
  • Avoidance of accountability.
  • Inattention to results.

All have their roots in conflict. But I want to hone in specifically on the concept of accountability – the enemy within our respective businesses.

When people start slacking, you need to learn how to frame your feedback so as not to trigger them (and others). Here’s how to hold people accountable.

1. Make the first move and address the elephant in the room.

If you hesitate or engage in small talk, waiting for the right opening in the conversation, you’re just wasting time, our most precious commodity.

When sitting down with a colleague to resolve conflicts, the chances are that you’re both wondering who is going to make the first move.

Make the first move and:

  • Be specific about the issue.
  • Clarify expectations.
  • Provide constructive feedback.

Always hear them out and give them a chance to share their perspective and insights when you’ve had your say.

2. Focus on behaviour, not personality.

There is a subtle art to giving feedback, and it involves choosing our words carefully. If we focus on the behaviour rather than the person, our feedback will be received in more positively.

For instance, which sounds better?

  • You’re just too slow, and we need it done faster” (personal).
  • You’ve been a little slower than usual” (behaviour).

The former statement implies that the person is fundamentally flawed and unchangeable, whereas the latter implies that the flaw is a temporary issue that can be remedied.

(Related: Four Types Of Feedback Every Manager Must Know).

3. Minimise collateral damage.

Even in war, there are international rules and regulations on the use of certain weaponry and explosives.

Isn’t it crazy that the term “war crimes” is a thing? The rules are there to minimise and prevent collateral damage.

That’s what you need to do in the workplace.

You can’t go in all guns blazing, slinging mud at an entire team or department.

If you have to challenge a person, isolate the issue with the person responsible for the issue.

Which is going to come across better?

  • Conversation with the team: I’m getting really sick of seasonal sales lagging behind our target – we’re all going to have to work harder to bridge the gap.
  • Private conversation with the individual responsible: Our sales are behind target because the seasonal promotion didn’t go live on our website. Do you have any idea what caused this?

Like It Or Not, You’re A Product Of Social Darwinian.

Let’s zoom out for a minute and look at human behaviour. In fact, scratch that; let’s look at animal behaviour.

Chimpanzees, our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, have a social hierarchy not dissimilar to ours.

After all, humans share about 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees.

Whether you like it or not, you’re living in a dynamic social hierarchy.

Some (but not all) of those around us are vying for power.

Okay, so we’re not as violent as our hairy cousins and don’t tear each other limb from limb during a dispute (even though you might sometimes have intrusive thoughts about a certain passive-aggressive “Karen”).

Adult chimpanzees acquire their dominance using aggression and coalitionary behaviour. Is that any different to how we humans operate?

  • We assert ourselves to get what we want (aggression).
  • We align ourselves with a tribe for security and personal gain (coalitions).

Most of us are competing, climbing, and pursuing status, and conflict is the main ingredient of natural selection.

Important!

Without conflict, there would be no struggle – no winners and losers in nature or the workplace.

Power hierarchies vs. competence hierarchies.

I’m willing to bet that at some point in your career, you’ve looked at one leader and thought, “How the hell did they get into that position?” You only have to look at international politics for recent examples of overachievers.

But are they really overachievers?

You don’t have to be a chest-thumping alpha male to succeed in the 21st century. We’re in the Information Age, not the Stone Age.

Power is an ambiguous term.

Jordan Peterson, the modern-day philosopher and psychologist, suggests that instead of referring to them as power (or dominance) hierarchies, we should refer to them as competence hierarchies.

He says this because outright dominance isn’t always favoured.

  • A dominant manager may offend team members which may be detrimental to performance.
  • An empathetic manager cares for their team and engenders mutual respect.

Different hierarchies exist within different organisations.

Erik ten Hag’s disciplinarian strategy works at Manchester United (disclaimer: this may not age well), and Mikel Arteta’s softer approach works at Arsenal.

Wherever you sit in the hierarchy, whatever your leadership style, if you want to climb the social hierarchy, you need to know what the “currency” is for climbing.

Is it dominance, empathy, or something else?

Final Word On Conflict Resolution In The Workplace.

Two points of view don’t have to be mutually exclusive; we don’t have to be diametrically opposed to one another’s beliefs. A team member who argues that remote working increases productivity can be demonstrably right; so too can a manager who argues the opposite.

Beware of your automatic inclination to refute those who disagree with you, and always leave room for the possibility that you could be wrong.

None of us are infallible.

Tommy

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