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How to Deal With Conflict at Work

How confident are you about dealing with conflict at work?

As a leader, do you feel you have effective conflict-resolution skills?

Conflict is never easy to deal with, but learning how to handle it well is one of the best things you can do for yourself and your organization.

Why is workplace conflict so common?

If you’re a Monty Python fan, you’re probably familiar with a sketch called “Argument Clinic.”

In it, Michael Palin walks into an office and asks to argue. The receptionist directs him down the hall to office 12A, where he encounters John Cleese sitting at a desk.

Palin: Is this the right room for an argument?

Cleese: I’ve told you once.

Palin: No, you haven’t!

Cleese: Yes, I have.

Palin: When?

Cleese: Just now.

Palin: No, you didn’t!

And so it goes until the sketch ends with typical Pythonesque absurdity.

Comedic sketches that focus on conflict are amusing, and much comedy is based around conflict. This is because conflict is common, especially at work.

Many people have never learned to manage conflict well. For the most part, we don’t get taught that at school, work, or home.

Dealing with conflict at work starts with being able to get at the root cause, which may include:

  • Personality clashes
  • Differences in world views or opinions
  • Lack of inclusivity in the culture
  • Not feeling accepted or not accepting others
  • Struggles with authority
  • Power dynamics
  • General workplace stress (e.g., being overworked)
  • Misunderstandings
  • Poor communication
  • Dishonest communication

When we’re thrown into a room full of people who may be completely different, we may not have the skills to get along.

Regarding team dynamics in a business setting, conflict can be debilitating to the parties and the process.

Here are some insights on how to handle conversations when tension is rising.

Diffusing Conflict Before it Happens

No one likes dealing with conflict at work, but the best leaders know how to diffuse it before it gets out of hand without sweeping the problem under the rug.

Consider the following points.

  1. Differing personality types. Understanding what kinds of personalities you are dealing with can go a long way in calming people down in the face of animosity and conflict.
  2. Differing viewpoints. You must respect each person’s view and instead focus on changing behaviour.
  3. Law of Reciprocity. Remember to “Do unto others as you want others to do unto you,” especially when you talk to or communicate with others.
  4. Be attentive. Be attentive and take action to diffuse a minor disagreement with the potential to erupt into something far worse later on.

Chances are you’ve encountered some conflict, if not plenty, in your career. Everyone does. But what separates the wheat from the chaff is how a leader overcomes conflict.

Signs and Symptoms of Conflict at Work

When dealing with conflict at work, you can often spot possible or actual conflict symptoms, even if it’s not apparent.

Examples include:

  • Passive-aggressive behaviour
  • Gossiping
  • Finger-pointing
  • Not responding to emails
  • Low productivity
  • Unfriendly body language
  • Absenteeism

The leader’s job is to recognize the symptoms and deal with the fallout fairly and empathetically.

It’s also up to the leader to create a positive culture in the workplace.

Dealing With Conflict at Work: 10 Conflict Resolution Tips

There isn’t one singular method of how to effectively handle conflict.

This is that there are many variables, including the type of business you’re in, your style of management, the nature of the conflict, the characters of other parties involved, etc.

I can’t cover all the possible scenarios here, but these ten tips will help set you in the right direction.

1. Avoid conversing via email

Email is faceless and expressionless. As such, it can distort one’s intentions. If you must use email, NEVER USE ALL CAPS.

2. Remain calm

You’re a leader. You need to stay calm for effective conflict resolution, even if the situation gets heated.

3. Listen intently

Conflict invariably arises over a lack of understanding. When you listen to a team member unload, a solution can occasionally present itself immediately.

4. Be empathetic

Chances are you were once on the other side of the desk with a similar gripe. It never hurts to explain that.

5. Highlight the positive

This point is self-explanatory. “I know you’re disappointed at not getting the promotion, and that says a lot about your dedication to the company.”

6. State your case rationally and eloquently

Like the proverb says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath.”

7. Don’t let it get personal

Focus on the problem rather than the person. You may find it flying back in your face if you make it personal.

8. Focus on the future

A solution lies in what “should happen” and in what “has happened.”

9. Be creative

Dealing with conflict at work is about problem-solving and, as such, requires creative solutions.

Adapt, improvise, overcome.

10. Stick with your convictions

If you’ve made a necessary but unpopular decision, it does nothing good if you waver under scrutiny.

Build Conflict Resolution Skills to Be a Better Leader

How you handle conflict should be no different than how you lead: with empathy, creativity, conviction, and grace.

Everyone can stand to improve their conflict resolution skills, and leaders especially need to hone this skill to be effective.

If you’re struggling with conflict in your organization, I can help you find solutions.

Get in touch by phone or email for a consultation.

Enjoyed this article? Here are three more you might like:

10 Keys to Better Goal Setting
Aligning Work Environments with Company Culture
3 Principles of Finding Rare Talent

This article was originally published in 2016, but updated in 2021. 

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Inscape Consulting Group
Greg Nichvalodoff, BSc. BM (Honors), MBA, PCC, CMC
Office: 604.943.0800
Mobile: 604.831.4734