Managing Conflict at Work

Sources of Conflict in the Workplace

Conflict in organizations and teams can be the result of many different sources, including stressful situations, uncertainty, and differing perspectives or personalities. 

Conformity, similarity, or minimizing differences is not an effective strategy to overcome or manage problems even if that is a default mode for some people.

Conflict Can Create Better Outcomes

Conflict is a normal part of life and work, and although most people do not enjoy it, there can be many positive outcomes from engaging constructively to manage conflict in the workplace. 

This article from Outward Bound, points out, “it can be a sign that individuals feel comfortable enough to disagree with others”. And, this HBR article asserts that when conflicts are managed well, they produce better work outcomes, opportunities to learn and grow, improve relationships, offer more inclusivity, and contribute to higher job satisfaction.

And yet, conflict resolution is exceedingly difficult for many individuals and organizations to engage in and manage in a productive way.


RELATED: Strong Workplace Relationships in a Virtual Team


Where to Start? Interpersonal Conflict 

A Harvard Business Review (HBR) [PDF] article on “how management teams can have a good fight” says that the challenge is to “encourage members of management teams to argue with each other without destroying their ability to work together” and the key to being able to do that is to “mitigate interpersonal conflict” and to separate the personal from the professional.  

The authors suggest six tactics to separate professional issues from interpersonal or personality issues

  • Focus on facts – obtain as much objective data as possible
  • Multiply alternatives – weigh four to five options instead of polarizing or side taking around just two options
  • Create common goals – what are the overarching goals that require our team collaboration? 
  • Use humour – it relieves tension and promotes collaboration 
  • Balance the power structure – if people believe the process is fair and their voices are heard and considered, they are more likely to accept decisions without resentment 
  • Seek consensus with qualification – if the team cannot reach consensus, the most relevant senior manager makes the decision, guided by input from the others”. 

Language, Words and Dialogue

It is important to remember that managing conflict productively is a good thing for our teams, because it means we’re engaged, we may be surfacing differences, challenging inferior decisions and patterns, and we likely are continuing to refine and develop better ideas along the way. Diversity provides strategic advantages, but diversity also means varying interpretations, biases, and motivations of the meanings of our conversations and actions. 

To be constructive in our conversations, we really need to choose the right words. The language we choose to use is how we create common meaning and understanding not only in what we say (context), but also together in relationship (how we each create meaning and interpret information) to gain understanding of varying perspectives.

It is not just transmitting information in a linear way. In addition, there are systems and institutions in play that are largely invisible but can be obstacles to understanding based on our own experience of privilege, oppression, barriers, and the constraints we might face.

Managing a Group or Team

The Outbound article we referenced earlier provides these seven tips to practice if you are facilitating conflict dialogue in a group or team:

  • Be in the moment, but not too much in the moment. Recognize when you or the team energy is escalated beyond reasoning or ability to look for resolution and make a plan for when to revisit it.
  • Control the stage. Who needs to be part of the conversation? Is it better for a broader audience or smaller? Set the tone and room to minimize distractions, circular rather than “sides”, etc…
  • Limit the forum. Keep the focus and park other issues that come up for another time.
  • Use your power to empower others. Provide structure to the conversation which includes clarifying questions, limiting back and forth, asking for perspectives, mirroring back to increase understanding. 
  • Encourage objectivity and “I” statements.
  • Make space for empathy. Ask others to imagine the feelings of others.
  • End with a plan to go forward. Even if this means continuing conversation. Always thank people for the hard work of engaging. 

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Managing Ourselves

To manage ourselves well, six questions to ask yourself when you are in a conflict situation that contribute to a better mindset are taken from this communications course.

  • What do I want to say vs what do I want to accomplish? (will expressing what I want to say help me achieve what I want to accomplish?) 
  • What are we making together and how can I frame it differently? 
  • Does this need to be said?…by me?…right now? 
  • What is this conflict about? (understand the broader context, what else contributes to the conflict) 
  • What questions can I ask, instead of what statements can I make? 
  • How can I be reflexive in this conflict situation? 

Differences Drive Innovation

Our differences give us strategic advantages if we can learn to work with these differences instead of minimizing them or disengaging from them. Brenda J. Allen’s book, Difference Matters asserts that work will be more successful if we have a better understanding of a wide variety of perspectives and talents because differences spark innovation. 

We’re Here to Help

In the Summit Team Building Managing Conflict training workshop, we discuss the impacts of the five common conflict styles presented by Thomas-Kilmann

These types include competing, compromising, avoiding, accommodating, and collaborating

Once you know your personal style and the style of others it makes it easier to identify and manage our preferred approaches. 

We would encourage you to check out the links in this post and to contact us at Summit if you want to dig deeper into this issue. 

We offer live (when appropriate by public health standards) and virtual options for most of our training workshops.. We hope that this post on managing conflict has helped you identify areas that you as a leader need to focus on. 

We are here to support your team identify and manage conflict at work in a more productive and healthy way, increase self and team awareness, and equip your team with tools to work together more effectively.  We’d love to connect with you  to learn more about your team and how we might be able to help you.