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How to Manage Conflict in the Workplace

8 min read
workplace conflicts

As the old saying goes, “The only constant in life is change”. Although there’s a lot of truth in the famous phrase, you could argue that conflict is another consistent aspect aspect life.

Where humans co-exist together, there will be conflict. We all see the world in our own way and have our own values, motivations and perceptions of situations. Sometimes our differences will inevitably lead to disagreement, so learning to manage and resolve conflict, however small, is crucial.

This is particularly true for professional environments where we are often dealing with the added pressure to perform, as well as the fact that we spend a large proportion of time each week with our colleagues. When things start going wrong, there is little room for mental escape which might bring a fresh perspective.

From testy exchanges over whose turn it is to answer the phone to full-blown disagreements between team members over a key professional issue, seemingly silly office politics over where people sit to senior leadership’s power struggles, there will be conflict in your workplace.

How companies deal with disputes can be the difference between a successful business and one that does not perform as well. It’s not about avoiding conflict but how you manage and resolve it so that all involved can learn and move on.


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Causes of Conflict

Before we delve into ways that we can resolve these conflict situations, it may be useful to remind ourselves of specific situations that may lead to conflict:

Workplace Stress and Competition

When stress levels are high, people are often much less tolerant of others and themselves. With reduced patience comes a lower likelihood of letting things go, so we may respond more aggressively to suggestions or ideas we are unsure about. People experiencing workload stress are also often trying to fit many things into their working day, which can result in rushed, less thoughtful communication.

Working environments which emphasise competition between employees will tend to have more examples of workplace conflict, as people have to fight against each other professionally to be successful.

Cultural and Language Barriers

Differences in culture can create conflict when something one person perceives as normal is received by the other as rude. A small example of this came from a company with offices in the UK and Australia. The Australian colleagues regularly started sentences with “Look….” which was a neutral opener for them, but the British colleagues perceived it as an aggressive “pay attention”. Language barriers can also naturally create conflict, where one party cannot understand what the other is saying.

Generational Differences

It’s no secret that generational differences exist. Each generation tends to think their beliefs and behaviours are the right way to live their life and the other generation is wrong. This manifests in the workplace in different work and communication styles, often exacerbated by technological developments. Older generations can feel that their experience isn’t valued, while younger generations can feel that they are not trusted to do the work.

Personality styles can cause major disagreement

Personality Clashes

Sometimes two or more parties do not get along simply because of character: their personalities mean they cannot develop and maintain a good relationship. In some cases, this may be because people are too similar; in other cases, they feel too different to find common ground.

Six Top Tips for Managing Conflict in the Workplace

Conflict resolution is not something you can take for granted. Organisations need to spend time working together to create systems, processes and cultures that openly address conflict and allow it to be resolved. Here are six ways organisations can improve their approach to conflict management:

  1. Have a Conflict Resolution Policy

Having a transparent, accessible policy that spells out how you deal with conflicts sets an expectation for all parties involved. The policy can provide a clear framework of stages that need to be followed, for example, starting with informal discussions and moving to more formal meetings if required. It’s also worth ensuring you use the correct legal language for dealing with equality and inclusion issues and hate crimes in case things escalate.

  1. Try to Resolve Issues Informally

Within the conflict resolution policy needs to be a firm commitment to resolving issues informally where possible. The foundation of any approach to conflict resolution is that the sooner differences can be aired, the easier it is for both parties to reach a compromise and move on to constructive conversation. A quick informal discussion can often nip a problem in the bud before it develops. Issues can build up if you have to wait to start a formal process. Plus, legal processes often involve putting things in writing, and once you have committed something to black and white, it can be harder to let go of your position.

  1. Create a Workplace Culture that Celebrates Difference and Teamwork

A business with a culture that actively celebrates the differences between people is built on respect for individuals. By encouraging employees to actively listen to each other, be thoughtful about their communication and empathise with different perspectives, organisations create a strong base of mutual understanding from which conflicts can be more easily resolved. Linked to this, a culture focusing on teamwork also provides a good foundation for working through disagreements. A focus on collaboration, mentoring and support sets the expectation that employees are expected to work together to resolve issues.

It can be worth considering a short Code of Conduct laying out essential guidance for how the company expects individuals to interact with each other.

  1. Provide Regular Training on Feedback, Communication & Resolving Conflicts

Companies that regularly train employees on conflict management skills, communication and feedback provide their workforce with the tools they need to deal with conflict. Not only is this empowering for individual employees, but it also makes it more likely that disputes will get resolved quickly and without becoming a distraction and drain on time and attention. Giving and receiving feedback is a vital part of resolving conflicts, as individuals need to be able to listen to what is said about them and be confident to share their perspectives to find common ground with each other and resolve the conflict.

  1. Ensure Leadership Sets a Good Example

Conflicts arise at all levels of an organisation, and senior leaders must know that they are role models and show how best to manage conflict using their emotional intelligence skills. Leaders also need to be aware of any potential diversity, equality and inclusion issues that might create conflict and ensure there are procedures in place to support individual employees who may be impacted. They need to be aware of potential problems, such as workplace bullying, and individuals who may be more likely to experience aggression towards them, such as those from minority groups.

Conflict resolution skills

  1. Understand the Different Ways Conflicts can be Resolved

It’s important to understand that not all interpersonal conflicts are created equal and that there are different ways that they get resolved. Academics at the University of Southampton found there are five different ways conflicts can be resolved:


An accommodation is found where one party is willing to accept the other’s position. it generally works when the issue is more important to one party than another.


Compromise can be reached where there is common ground between parties, and their relationship is perceived to be more important than the issue. Each side experiences some wins and some losses, but both can accept the agreement.


Collaboration involves working together to resolve an issue. Both parties need to be prepared to be honest and focused on tackling the real issue at hand. This approach to addressing conflict takes hard work, trust and commitment because you must agree to go beyond the presenting issue that caused the conflict to understand what lies beneath it. If it works, collaboration following conflict can result in meaningful change.


Avoidance of a problem cannot generally make it go away. However, if neither party is willing to discuss or resolve the issue, this can sometimes be the best policy if the issue is small, and some space from it may help resolution.


We have already seen how competition can be a source of conflict. Within a workplace culture designed around competition, this same force can solve disputes, particularly over primacy. In these cases, one party ‘wins’ by being more powerful or successful. This is usually a last-case scenario but can be required when a decision needs to be made to let people move on.

Resolve conflict informally

Resolving a Specific Issue

While it is essential to have an organisation-wide approach to conflict resolution, as outlined above, there will be times when you need to work with individuals to deal with a conflict head-on and resolve a specific issue. Here are best practice tips to enhance your conflict resolutions skills whether you are one of the parties involved or are acting as a mediator:

  1. Talk in Person Where at all Possible

While it can be tempting to enter into an email discussion to resolve an issue, talking face-to-face normally produces a better result. Remember that written communication loses the non-verbal cues that help us understand each other better. Video calls work better than written communication in terms of seeing and hearing each other. However, it’s worth remembering that video can be emotionally tiring, and you still lose some of the subtleties of body language, such as facial expressions and proper eye contact, that aid communication.

  1. However you Talk, Make Sure the Space is Safe

It is vital that both parties feel safe to talk without interruptions, confidentiality issues or distractions. On the one hand, this means findings a physically secure space, but it also involves setting the expectations in the meeting about behaviour, support and privacy. In some cases, it may be appropriate to have an additional person in the room.

  1. Focus on Events and Behaviours, not Personality Traits

It’s natural to be defensive when receiving a general accusation of a negative character trait. When dealing with interpersonal conflict over a specific situation, concentrating on what happened makes it easier for people to accept if they made a mistake which impacted others. It is much easier to apologise for something you did than for who you are.

  1. Listen to Everyone and Respond to Show you have Heard Each Position

Both sides need to accept a solution in order to resolve a conflict. This is far more likely if both parties feel they have been properly listened to. Practice active listening by giving the situation your full attention. Then reflect back on what you hear to check and demonstrate you have understood correctly. It can also be worth making notes on which both parties can agree.

  1. Investigate as Required

While it is good to resolve conflicts as soon as possible, if additional investigation is required, you must communicate in any meeting that this is an outcome. It may require support and significant time to do the necessary research.

  1. Identify the Issue

If the resolution to prevent workplace conflict is going to be successful, it needs to be clear to all parties what the issue is. Once you have listened to everyone and done any investigations you need to, take some time to think through the issue and share this with everyone. You may need to think about underlying issues as well as conflicts can often indicate a deeper problem that needs addressing, such as persistently inappropriate behaviour from one person.

  1. Confirm Points of Agreement

If there is any agreement between the parties, state these areas clearly. Seeing where there is common ground can be a sound first stage towards resolving conflict, as both sides can accept that they are not entirely at odds with each other. This can be as simple as acknowledging that both parties are upset and want to resolve the situation.

  1. Agree on the Best Solution and Show How Each Party is Involved

The “best” solution may not feel like it for everyone. Still, if you can show that there has been thought and consideration given to all the points above, then the parties involved will hopefully understand that due diligence has been followed for resolving this particular conflict. Knowing that a process has been followed fairly can make it easier to accept a solution you may not want.

  1. Follow Through and Check-In if Necessary

Where follow-up points are part of the agreed solution, these must be adequately actioned and completed so there is a longer-term commitment to avoiding the same issue in the future. Depending on the subject that needs resolving, it may be a good idea to schedule a check-in for a future date to check for any emerging concerns.

  1. Clarify any Preventative Strategies for the Future

As part of the resolution, it may be appropriate to suggest training or find a different approach to an existing problem. Considering ways to avoid similar conflicts arising again in the future is especially important if you are dealing with a recurrent problem.

Imogen is a freelance writer specialising in health, travel and people, who loves creating content that is accessible and easy to digest. She is also currently in her second year of retraining to be a children and adolescent therapist. In her spare time, she goes cold water swimming, plays tennis and loves to travel with her family and their dog.

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