Conflict happens wherever people are involved — which is to say, everywhere. Unfortunately, that includes the workplace. Conflict at work is inevitable, but it can be incredibly uncomfortable. And it shows up differently than we may think. When we think of conflict, what typically comes to mind is what’s actually conflict escalation, meaning raised voices, verbal insults, or storming out.
But in reality, there’s a lot more to conflict than its most extreme expression. Conflict is simply an opposition, tension, or misalignment between ideas, desires, or people, and it appears in many different ways. When it arises at work, conflict can feel especially charged because it’s attached to our core needs like a sense of worth, ability to provide, and the desire to feel needed or respected.
“Our jobs are what we view as our security, and when we’re feeling threatened or defensive because we’re eager to protect those core needs, it can often bring out the worst in us,” explained Patty Franco, executive coach, workplace trainer, and founder of Patty Franco Coaching.
In order to keep the workplace functioning at a high level, effective conflict management is essential. Below, we’ll examine how to resolve conflict at work and share best practices for building conflict resolution skills to protect productivity, morale, and psychological safety at your organization.
How Conflict Shows Up at Work
Conflict often comes from our most primal impulses and is based on fears, assumptions, and (mis)communication, while being informed by our past experiences.
“We all come to our workspaces with the experiences that have shaped us. And so to some degree, that’s fundamentally one of the things that begins to cause conflict,” said Eugene Dilan, PsyD, SPHR, founder and CEO of Dilan Consulting Group, a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and leadership consulting firm.
While those deeper insecurities or core needs are often at the root of conflict, some common ways we see it projected in the workplace include:
- Differences in Point of View or Opinion — We both want our perspective to prevail.
- Competing Priorities — What’s urgent for me may not be urgent for you.
- Lack of Clarity — I didn’t realize you wanted it done a different way.
- Perceived Inequities — The boss always favors them, and that’s why they get stretch assignments.
- Political and Social Disagreements — I could never work with someone who believes that.
Conflict exists along a spectrum, and in the workplace this can look like everything from disputes over budget allocation to pay discrimination lawsuits, and everything in between.
While it can be natural to want to avoid workplace conflict, effective conflict resolution can bring about better outcomes than having no conflict at all. “When people have different points of view that could create conflict, that’s a good thing because those conversations [to resolve it] are how you go about solving the problems that can advance an organization,” said Shaara Roman, CEO of culture consulting firm The Silverene Group and author of The Conscious Workplace: Fortify Your Culture to Thrive in Any Crisis.
Prioritize the Good of the Organization
The process of resolving conflict is not designed to avoid differences, but to facilitate discussions and encourage emotional regulation so that a mutually satisfiable agreement can be reached. According to the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, conflict resolution “is the process of resolving a dispute or a conflict permanently, by adequately addressing each side’s interests so that they are satisfied with the outcome.”
“If we’re talking about conflict specifically in the workplace, the ideal resolution is one that lands on an outcome that’s best for the organization,” Dilan added. It’s often possible to find a solution that is best for the people involved and the organization, but that’s not always true. In those cases it’s necessary to remain focused on the good of the organization, he said.
Resolving Conflict Creates a Healthier Work Environment
Ultimately, conflict is an opportunity for all parties involved to develop a better understanding of one another, deepen trust, and find more innovative solutions — but it must be managed well.
Psychologist and researcher Bruce Tuckman’s “Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing” model of team development illustrates the role of conflict in a team’s natural evolution. According to this model, “storming” (i.e., conflict) is necessary to create the group norms, which then allow the team to perform at a high level.
When conflict is allowed to fester or is managed poorly, the parties involved usually wind up farther apart then they were before trying to engage. “If we don’t allow [intense conflict] to be something that brings both sides together in that moment, there’s likely to be a complete breakdown,” cautioned Nance Schick, JD, an employment lawyer, mediator, and founder of workplace conflict resolution firm Third Ear Conflict Resolution.
Common Types of Conflict in the Workplace
There countless ways to categorize conflict in the workplace; we’ve broken it down into three main buckets, which are:
- Task-based conflict arises from a tangible issue surrounding tasks and responsibilities at work. It may be process-oriented, like frustrations about decision-making and how work is getting done, or centered on outcome, like disappointment in the quality of a final deliverable. Task conflict can appear uncomplicated, but as with all conflicts, there are usually contributing factors that can make it more charged. For example, a dispute between two department heads over the allocation of budget may actually be about a perceived inequity. A collaborative approach is best to solve task-related conflict.
- Relationship-based conflict often comes from personality clashes, or differences in managerial, communication, or conflict style. It can be difficult to resolve as there’s not always a direct event, dispute, or issue to focus on; sometimes people just don’t get along. However, in the workplace it’s necessary to find ways to work around relationship conflict to ensure productive collaboration and goal achievement. Finding common ground can be useful, so as counterintuitive as it may feel, consider inviting the person you’re having a conflict with out for coffee or lunch and try to get to know them outside of the workplace. Finding something to connect over — even if it’s unrelated to work, such as a shared love of a favorite television program or travel destination, or a mutual commitment to charitable causes, can be useful in helping you feel more favorably toward this person.
- Value-based conflict happens when there’s a misalignment between personal values in the workplace. This may be work- or task-related, and have to do with a disagreement with the perceived ethics of a decision or direction. Value-based conflict also arises from differences in political, social, and religious beliefs, and this kind of workplace conflict has increased in recent years alongside the growing divisiveness in the US. Values-based conflict can be difficult to resolve, and often there is no satisfying resolution when a conflict is related to personal or political beliefs. In these instances, both parties should seek to settle on mutual respect and do their best to move on.
5 Essential Conflict Resolution Skills and Strategies
Resolving disputes requires effective communication, good listening skills, and an awareness of the root cause of the problem, among other factors. Use the five strategies below for better problem-solving and conflict resolution at work.
1. Get to the root of the problem.
The concepts of position and interests are important to understand in conflict resolution. Position is what you claim to want, while interests are what are driving that want. If you can satisfy a person’s interests, they may be open to a different position.
For example, a manager may be demanding more time to complete a given project (position) because they want to protect their overworked team members (interest). Providing additional resources, like associate employees who can lend support for the administrative tasks of the project, may be able to keep it on track without requiring extra hours from overworked employees. Therefore, you’ve satisfied the needs of all involved, although by satisfying interest and not position.
2. Be assertive.
The word ‘assertive’ often has negative connotations, but it is actually a key part of conflict resolution. Assertive communication is direct, respectful, and honest. It’s a way of sharing how you feel and expressing what you’re looking for. The assertive speaker is focused on themselves, but also considers how the message is landing for the other person. “Assertiveness is, ‘I respect myself enough to share what I think, feel, want, or need. And I respect you enough to make space for you to share what you think, feel, want, or need,’” Dilan said.
3. Agree on ground rules.
Setting ground rules from the get-go will help keep the conversation productive. Ground rules could include things like agreeing to allow the other person to finish speaking before talking and not interrupting one another, maintaining a commitment to remaining calm and not raising voices, and setting a 30-minute limit on the conversation and agreeing to return to it at a later time if the issue is not yet resolved within that time frame.
4. Practice active listening.
According to Franco, a lot of people think they know what active listening is, but in reality fail to fully grasp it. “They think it’s paying attention and showing that you’re listening, but it’s deeper than that,” she said. “Active listening is about showing that you get what I’m saying and how I’m feeling.” That last piece can be glossed over in the workplace, especially given the long-held belief that emotions don’t belong at work.
For example, say another manager approaches you to resolve a conflict. They’re upset because one of your direct reports hasn’t provided their team members with information needed to finalize an important deliverable. Rather than listening to what they have to say and responding with, “Okay, I get it. Let’s find a solution and move on,” acknowledge their frustrations by saying something like, “I hear you. You’ve had this person drop the ball on you three times, and you’re really frustrated. I can understand that. How can I help?”
5. Know your triggers.
Awareness helps us make different choices, so it’s important for leaders, managers, and employees to be aware of how they respond to triggering situations. Roman advised paying attention to physical reactions you may have when you’re feeling triggered, like your face flushing, and body language, like crossing your arms defensively. One you know what your own personal signals and reactions are to feeling triggered, when you notice these sensations and responses arising, you’ll know that you need to take a break — or at least a deep breath.
6 Steps for Effective Conflict Resolution
Whether you’re leading the dispute resolution or one of the parties involved, the following steps will help you guide or participate in the conversation with emotional intelligence, effective communication, and strong conflict-resolution skills.
1. Determine how severe the conflict is and who needs to be involved.
Sometimes it’s appropriate for the parties involved to resolve their own dispute — but not always. The first step of conflict resolution is to figure out how serious the dispute is. In any circumstance where discrimination or abuse is alleged, HR should be brought in immediately. If it’s a disagreement between coworkers or an inter-team conflict over resources, it could be alright for the parties to seek a resolution on their own before escalating the issue.
2. Make sure it’s a mutually convenient time to talk and express your desire to find a solution.
“I need to talk to you,” is more aggressive and can make the other person feel defensive. Instead, you could say, “I have something on my mind that I want to share with you. Is now a good time?” or, “I’d love to share an observation with you when you’re open to it. Do you have a moment?”
And if you're feeling nervous about broaching the conflict, you’re not alone. You can even share your apprehension with the other person and say, “I’m feeling a little uncomfortable and this is hard for me to say. But I care about our working relationship, and I think sharing this and finding a solution will help us work better together.” Admitting to feeling anxious about conflict can be disarming and help the other person feel more relaxed and receptive to your message.
3. Opt for objective observations and ask questions.
We often default to using subjective observations when addressing conflict and say things like, “You seem different, is everything okay?” But it’s more effective to share observations based on objective criteria and follow up with questions. Objective observations are more persuasive when dealing with conflict because they are based on fact — not feeling.
For instance, you could say, “I see that we’re not tracking to finalize the Q3 product roadmap with product marketing by next week as agreed. I also noticed that the project manager is no longer on the meeting invites. Can you share with me what's going on?”
Some other effective ways for phrasing questions at this step of the conflict resolution process include:
- “What assumptions are you using that I may not have considered?”
- “Can you give me the context for why you’re saying/recommending/doing X, Y, or Z?”
- “Can you help me understand how you came to this decision?”
Stating facts then asking the other person for more information will help provide more insight into the conflict at hand, and allow you to more effectively resolve it.
4. Pause after sharing what you’re dissatisfied about.
After stating what’s bothering you, give the other person time to absorb what you’ve shared. When we’re nervous, there can be a compulsion to talk nonstop to try to explain, rationalize, or even apologize, but try to avoid the urge to do this. Instead, pause and give the other person time to process what you’ve said, and extend them the courtesy and respect of hearing what they have to say.
It’s helpful to respond to questions in the format in which they were asked to keep communication clear and demonstrate active listening. For example, in response to the bulleted questions above, you might say:
- “Here is the information I used to draw my conclusions…”
- “Sure, the context for saying/recommending/doing that is A, B, C.”
- “I can. [Explain your reasoning.] What else can I help clarify for you?”
Listening is an essential part of conflict resolution, so take a deep breath, pause, and create space for the other person to share their responses and feelings, too.
5. Manage your own reactions.
Above all, manage your reactions. At its core, “conflict management is self management,” said Dilan. Attempting to resolve conflict is not always going to be successful or problem-free, but it’s essential to remain calm no matter what. If you feel like your emotions are escalating, it’s better to stop the meeting and reschedule for another time when you’ve cooled down than to begin yelling, crying, or getting upset. Having a script prepared that you can use if things get heated is helpful.
For example, you could say something like, “I feel like this conversation isn’t remaining productive, and I’d like to press pause and agree to resume at a different time. I’ll follow up with you later today and we can find another time to speak.” It’s always better to halt the conversation than to say something you’ll regret.
6. Get outside help when necessary.
Sometimes it won’t be possible to find a solution that everyone’s satisfied with, or even come close to it. That’s why part of an effective conflict resolution process is knowing when to seek external help. This could be in the form of an HR professional, internal peer mediator, or external facilitator. The one person it should not be is your direct supervisor.
“You don’t want someone [acting as the mediator] who is managing the people directly,” Dilan cautioned. “Whether it’s HR or an external person, you want to create a [safe space] for the pair where they can be a little more open and have some privacy.”
Managing conflict isn’t a simple and straightforward process, but it is a crucial workplace skill for those at all levels of an organization. As uncomfortable as it can be to address conflict in the workplace, without the skills and processes for dealing with it, tension will fester and negatively impact productivity and morale. But when done well, the conflict resolution process can bring colleagues and teams closer than before and result in creative solutions that help advance the organization.
Effective conflict resolution begins with building a culture of trust. Learn how transparent business practices lead to trust within organizations in our webinar, Transparency Matters: How to Build a Culture of Trust in Your Organization.