Conflict in the workplace is bound to happen from time to time. When people work together every day, circumstances will arise when not everyone sees eye to eye. Anyone who has ever held a job can remember a time when they clashed with a coworker, disagreed with a directive, or had a difference of opinion with their boss. The issue may or may not have escalated beyond a brief encounter or moment of discomfort, but the fact remains that none of us are immune to the tensions that arise with conflict at work.

The roots of conflict vary widely, but when it comes to conflict in the workplace, many times the disagreement is caused by a contradiction in expectations. Expectations can vary from person to person for a number of reasons, including lack of information, miscommunication, or even a difference in values. 

In any work environment, properly managing conflict is beneficial to the bottom line. Employees who feel supported and who feel heard during the conflict resolution process are more productive and provide better service overall. Nobody wants to come to work and do their best when the environment is rife with tension and management isn’t doing anything about it. Disagreements with supervisors, friction among coworkers, and office drama are leading culprits behind job dissatisfaction, poor employee performance, absenteeism, and high turnover. Plus, if you don’t manage conflict, you leave your company vulnerable to escalating problems or even potential lawsuits.

What Does Conflict in the Workplace Look Like?

Workplace conflict can take many forms. Let’s consider an example you’ve likely experienced first.

Conflict often arises when a manager and employee do not agree on how to execute a task. It could be because the employee wasn’t trained at all, the employee wasn’t trained properly, or the employee believes their approach is better than the way they were trained. In any case, the manager expects that task to be completed one way and grows frustrated when the employee is doing it differently; meanwhile, the employee isn’t aware that expectations are not being met. This scenario is a common one and it is ripe for conflict, as each party will tend to blame the other.

Other examples of workplace conflict you may encounter in your small business include:

Leadership conflict – If members of your management or supervisory team have different leadership styles or different expectations, this can cause confusion, frustration, and conflict among your employees.

Personality clashes – Typically, teams are made up of people from different backgrounds, levels of experience, generational gaps, a mix introverts and extroverts, and type-A go-getters versus those with a more easy-going workstyle. With different personalities at play, clashes will sometimes happen.

Unhealthy Competition – There’s nothing wrong with a little healthy competition, but cut-throat competition that discourages teamwork and encourages winning at all costs often breed excess conflict and hostile work environments.

Unfair Treatment – If employees are overworked, underpaid, underappreciated, or they don’t have what they need to do their job effectively, you can expect a high level of tension and workplace conflict.

Bullying and Harassment – Troublemakers can slip through employment pre-screenings, but if the problem is not addressed and resolved quickly, the conflict will continue to grow unchecked.

Overall, conflict can range from a simple disagreement to workplace violence. It’s important to have an effective plan in place to deal with it effectively as it occurs.

Is Workplace Conflict Always Bad?

Before we cover tips for dealing effectively with conflict, it’s important to consider our own perceptions of conflict. As a leader, how we think about the issue can influence our approach to handling conflict.

There are various schools of thought when it comes to whether conflict is “good” or “bad.” The traditional view of conflict is that it is always bad and disruptive in the workplace; it’s something to be avoided altogether. The human relations view of conflict considers it natural and inevitable; it’s something we should come to expect and learn to deal with effectively. An interactionist view of conflict considers it a positive force that is necessary for success. 

In other words, there is no right or wrong answer to whether conflict is “good” or “bad.” While it can’t be avoided entirely, your goal may be to minimize it as much as possible. If you embrace its inevitability, your focus may be on dealing with it in a productive way. And if you wish to encourage conflict, you may focus on creating innovation and progress through hashing out opposing perspectives. 

What’s most important is that you, your leadership team, and your employees have a fundamental understanding of how your organization views conflict and handles conflict resolution.

That being said, the intent in dealing with conflict is not to prevent it from ever arising again, but rather to ensure we possess and practice the skills needed to navigate it successfully and with minimal destructive side effects. 

How to Effectively Deal with Conflict in the Workplace

As a small business human resources consultant, my team and I advise our clients on how to establish positive relationships, develop healthy conflict resolution strategies, and create a workplace that is less stressful and more joyful for all. We coach managers and leaders through the process of uncovering underlying issues, dealing with perceptions and emotions, and implementing practical solutions. 

Here are my Top 10 Tips for Dealing with Workplace Conflict:

  1. Know your options. Carefully consider the best approach to take and what needs to be accomplished.
  2. Recognize your own preferences, biases and past experiences. Do a self-check and ensure your emotions are not clouding your judgment.
  3. Gather as much information about the “other side” as possible. Do your research and assume nothing.
  4. Be an active listener. Let the other party know you are receptive and affirming to their perspective and input.
  5. Avoid insults, defensiveness, and hurtful comments. Focus on understanding and being understood, not “getting back at” or blaming the other party.
  6. Redirect negative to positive. If you’re up against someone with a negative outlook, shift the energy by focusing on positive questions and finding a functional solution to the problem.
  7. Take a break if necessary to de-escalate. 
  8. Assess the complete situation and weigh your options.
  9. Shoot for a win-win for all involved.
  10. Protect your sanity and peace of mind. Remember, it’s more important to create a positive outcome than “win” or prove yourself “right.”

When conflict occurs, it’s your job to assess the severity of the situation, plan for an immediate response to mitigate issues, maintain safety and prevent violence, and plan for the future. Work with leadership to determine what programs or policies are needed that might improve the overall health of your team or workplace.

To get you on the right track, we’ve created a Workplace Conflict Resolution Cheat Sheet that you can download here by entering your name and email. This should get you moving in the right direction as you consider developing an effective conflict management plan.

To get help developing your company’s conflict management plan or dealing with employee conflicts that arise, schedule a strategy session with Niki Ramirez, MBA, PHR, SHRM-CP, THRP, Founder & Managing Partner, HR Answers, LLC.