Where there are people, there is conflict. We all bring our different values, perspectives and needs to the office and they often clash with those of our colleagues. Left unchecked, conflicts brew and can lead to animosity. Teamwork can break down, morale drops, and tasks grind to a halt. Organizations feel the hit, too, with wasted talent, high absenteeism, and increased staff turnover. However, conflict can be resolved! What’s more, it can be healthy, bringing issues to light, discussing the different views, strengthening relationships, and sparking innovation. In this article, we’ll explore different types of conflict, what causes them, and ways to reach a positive outcome.​

Types of Workplace Conflict

Generally, there are two types of workplace conflicts:

  • Personality conflict or disagreements between individuals. These clashes are driven and perpetuated by emotions such as anger, stress and frustration. A study found that “personality clashes and warring egos” account for nearly half of all workplace conflicts.
    • Relationship – (unresolved personality conflicts, history of ownership issues) problems or issue between people involved in the discussion or conflict 
    • Individual – (social/emotional, self-esteem, values, skills, knowledge, experience) one person’s deficiency or quality that inhibits a “clean” conversation
  • 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.
    • Informational – (facts, opinions, perspectives) directly related to the issue being discussed
    • Environmental – (temperature, noise, work politics or culture) atmosphere in which the discussion is taking place

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 skill sets are finite resources. Competition for them can lead to conflict.
  • Different interests. People may focus on personal over organizational goals. Or be held up and frustrated by others who they rely on to do their jobs effectively.

Conflict Resolution Skills

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

  1. Raise the Issue Early – Address the person (or people) concerned. Keeping quiet only lets resentment fester, and 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. Be assertive  (but non-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. If you’re not comfortable approaching the other party, or worry that it may exacerbate the problem, speak with your manager first.
  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 make the situation worse. 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?”
  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 Win-Win Negotiation . This helps you to build mutual respect and understanding – and 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:
    1. Paraphrase the other party’s points to show you’re listening and really understand them.
    2. Look out for non-verbal signals that contradict what they are saying, e.g. a hesitant tone behind positive words. Bring these out into the open to address them together.
    3. Use body language, such as nodding your head, to show interest and make it clear that you’re following them.
  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.

A Three-Step Approach to Conflict Resolution

Understanding your primary conflict mode using the Thomas Kilmann Assessment will help you understand the pros and cons, along with how to utilize it successfully. At the same time, in any conflict, there are 3 key steps for reaching a positive outcome that draws on the above. The three steps are: 

  1. Prove that you understand their side – Stop blaming others, instead ask why they made the decision, how they got to where they got to, what their perspective is and why. Use active listening to show that you are taking that information on board. Be curious, ask questions, step into their shoes, practice empathy.
  2. Acknowledge that you are part of the problem – It takes TWO people for an argument to occur, take ownership and admit your part. This will lead to mutual trust and a better understanding of each other and leads to a quicker solution as dialogue opens up.
  3. Try again if the conversation didn’t go well – you get more than one shot at resolving a conflict at work. Focus on the facts, clearly think through the outcome you would like, be willing to empathize and negotiate. Be a stand for a workable relationship that leads to high performance.

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, use the above conflict resolution skills to pre-empt, manage and fix conflicts. You may discover positives, too, such as improving processes, strengthening relationships, and innovating.