9 MIN READ

Conflict Resolution

8 Ways to Resolve Conflict in the Workplace

 

Where there are people, there is conflict. We each have our values, needs and habits, so it's easy to misunderstand or irritate one another – or worse, to fall into conflict.

Left unchecked, conflict can lead to bad decisions and outright disputes, bullying or harassment. Teamwork breaks down, morale drops, and projects grind to a halt. Organizations feel the hit with wasted talent, high absenteeism, and increased staff turnover.

But conflict can be resolved. What's more, it can bring issues to light, strengthen relationships, and spark innovation – so long as you don't try to ignore it!

In this article, we'll explore different types of conflict, what causes conflict, and how to reach a positive outcome when you find yourself in conflict with a co-worker. (To identify the signs of conflict occurring between other people and to help them overcome their conflict with one another, we recommend our follow-on article, Resolving Team Conflict.)

See the transcript for this video here.

Types of Workplace Conflict

Generally, workplace conflicts fall into two categories:

  • Personality conflict or disagreements between individuals. These clashes are driven and perpetuated by emotions such as anger, stress and frustration.
  • Substantive conflict is tangible and task-related, like the decisions leaders make, the performance of a team member, or your company's direction.

If unaddressed, both can spiral into wider conflict between teams, departments or businesses.

What Causes Conflict at Work?

Some of the most common causes of workplace conflict are:

  • Unclear responsibilities. Some team members may feel they do more work than others, or resent those who seem to have fewer responsibilities. Blame and frustration can build due to duplicated work or unfinished tasks.
  • Competition for resources. Time, money, materials, equipment, and skillsets are finite resources. Competition for them can lead to conflict.
  • Different interests. People may focus on personal or departmental goals over organizational ones. Or be held up and frustrated by others who they rely on to do their jobs effectively.

Note:

Read our article on Bell and Hart's Eight Causes of Conflict for more sources of – and solutions to – disputes.

5 Conflict Resolution Skills

When you find yourself in a conflict situation, these five skills will help you to resolve disagreements quickly and effectively.

1. Raise the Issue Early

Keeping quiet only lets resentment fester. Equally, speaking with other people first can fuel rumor and misunderstanding. So, whether you're battling over the thermostat or feel that you're being micromanaged, be direct and talk with the other party.

However, if you're afraid of making that approach, or worry that it may make the problem worse, speak with your manager first, or your HR department if the other party is your manager.

Either way, be assertive (not aggressive) and speak openly. This will encourage others to do the same – and you can get to the root cause of a problem before it escalates.

2. Manage Your Emotions

Choose your timing when you talk to someone about the conflict. If you're angry, you may say something you'll regret and inflame the situation. Be careful to avoid playing the blame game.

So stay calm, collect yourself, and ask, "What is it I want to achieve here?", "What are the issues I'm having?" and "What is it that I would like to see?"

Tip:

See our article Managing Your Emotions at Work for more insight and tips.


3. Show Empathy

When you talk to someone about a conflict, it's natural to want to state your own case, rather than hear out the other side. But when two people do this, the conversation goes in circles.

Instead, invite the other party to describe their position, ask how they think they might resolve the issue, and listen with empathy.

Putting yourself in the other person's shoes is an essential part of negotiation. This helps you to build mutual respect and understanding – and to achieve an outcome that satisfies both parties.

4. Practice Active Listening

To identify the source of the conflict you have to really listen. To listen actively:

  • Paraphrase the other party's points to show you're listening and really understand them.
  • Look out for non-verbal signals that contradict what they are saying, such as a hesitant tone behind positive words. Bring these out into the open sensitively to address them together.
  • Use appropriate body language, such as nodding your head, to show interest and to make it clear that you're following them.

Tip:

Go further with Empathic Listening or Mindful Listening.

5. Acknowledge Criticism

Some of the things the other person tells you may be difficult to hear. But remember that criticism or constructive feedback is about job behaviors and not you as a person.

So, keep an open mind and use criticism to help you to identify areas to improve, perform better next time, and grow.

Free Stress Toolkit Offer

Get your FREE How to Overcome Stress Toolkit when you join the Mind Tools Club before Midnight, Nov 4.

Find Out More

Glasers' Three-Step Strategy for Conflict Resolution

Conflict management consultants Peter and Susan Glaser recommend a three-step strategy for resolving conflict, and it draws on many of the skills we've looked at above. You can hear the Glasers talking about their model in our exclusive interview with them. [1]

The steps are:

  1. Prove that you understand their side.
  2. Acknowledge that you are part of the problem.
  3. Try again if the conversation didn't go well.

Let's apply each step to a fictional conflict scenario.

Conflict Resolution Example

Imagine that the heads of two departments are in conflict. Product Manager Sayid changed the price of a product without letting Marketing Manager Gayanne know. As a result, the marketing team sent out an email to customers with incorrect prices. They had to send out a follow-up email apologizing for the error, and make good on the price some customers paid for the product.

1. Prove That You Understand Their Side

Instead of blaming Sayid, Gayanne asks him how he came to make the decision. She uses her questioning and listening skills to get the information she needs and to show that she's truly hearing Sayid's response.

She discovers that Sayid was pressured by a major client to drop the price or risk losing a contract. She empathizes, saying, "Yes, I've had difficulties with that client before, too."

As Susan Glaser says, "Only when you believe that I understand you, will you be willing to try to understand my perspective." [2]

2. Acknowledge That You Are Part of the Problem

If you're in conflict with someone, it's unlikely you're free of all blame. So admit your part in it. This leads to mutual trust, a better understanding of one another, and makes it easier to find a solution.

In our scenario, Gayanne could say to Sayid, "I should have shared our marketing strategy and email send dates with you. I'll do that right away."

3. Try Again if the Conversation Doesn't Go Well

Despite the progress they've made, relations between the two managers remain frosty, so Sayid calls Gayanne the following week. He says, "I was thinking about our conversation, and I'd like to try again because I'm not happy with how it went. I've had time to take your points on board, and I'd like to talk about how we can work together better going forward."

Remember that you get more than one shot at resolving a conflict. Susan Glaser says, "There's a myth that if we have a bad conversation with someone it's over. In fact, 'do overs' are powerful." [3]

Key Points

Conflict is common in the workplace. The biggest mistake you can make is to do nothing. Unresolved tensions can affect the health and performance of people and organizations.

So, hone these five conflict resolution skills to pre-empt, manage and fix conflicts with your co-workers:

  1. Raise the issue early.
  2. Manage your emotions.
  3. Show empathy.
  4. Practice active listening.
  5. Acknowledge criticism.

Then try the Glasers' three-step conflict resolution strategy to resolve issues together:

  1. Prove that you understand their side.
  2. Acknowledge that you are part of the problem.
  3. Try again if the conversation doesn't go well.

In the process, you may even discover positives such as improved processes, strengthened relationships, and innovation!

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

Show Ratings Hide Ratings

Ratings

Rate this resource

Comments (55)
  • Over a month ago alice.gledhill wrote
    We have now updated this article to include some reasons why workplace conflict can occur, and, crucially, what you need to do to resolve it. We hope you find it useful!
    – Alice and the MT Content Team.
  • Over a month ago Midgie wrote
    Hi Kevondrick8082,
    You are welcome. Hope the article has given you a few ideas that you can use.

    Midgie,
    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago Kevondrick8082 wrote
    Thanks
View All Comments