How to Deal with Conflict in the Workplace

Arguing colleagues staring at each other
Roman Samborskyi /

We spend a large portion of our lives at work, and conflicts are sure to arise between colleagues, making the role of a team leader, supervisor or manager just a little more challenging. Being in a management position, you may often be called upon to diffuse and resolve workplace conflicts, and you need to learn to effectively employ a number of skills to help you deal with such situations.

There are many management styles that you can follow depending on the situation, but there are some key strategies that remain true, no matter your style, when it comes to conflict resolution in the workplace.

Scenarios may range from overstepping the boundaries of a job description to manipulation, personal vendettas, false assumptions and expectations, and even discrimination. With varying levels of intensity, conflicts can be as easy to resolve as blowing out a candle, but if left unattended and uncontrolled, they can lead to a fire that will burn down your entire business.

When you find yourself dealing with an issue that is on a set trajectory to becoming a full-blown conflict, these strategies will help manage the situation with the least amount of upset for the company. Open to interpretation and adjustable to your style, these strategies aim to guide you through a challenge that will showcase your leadership qualities – or lack thereof.

1. Don’t Avoid It

Hate to break it to you but avoiding an issue will not make it go away. On the contrary, if you let it brew, no matter at what level, there will come a time when it escalates to the point of no return. Rather than hoping it will pass, the earlier you deal with it, the less potential damage it will cause. Tackling the issue early on will also help avoid grudges and an unpleasant work environment company-wide. Address the situation head on healthily and productively and, most importantly, with the fewest casualties.

2. Listen Actively to Both Sides

We have all been in situations where we listen to reply rather than listen to resolve. Listening to both sides of an argument in a calm and collected manner will not only help you collect information on the issue, but it will also reveal a great deal about the parties involved. There are some key points that you need to look at in order to be prepared to resolve the issue. Active listening to both sides will help you determine factors such as why this conflict has arisen and the underlying reasons for the situation.

3. Determine and Eradicate the Root Cause

Once you comprehend the reason the conflict escalated to the point where you need to take action, it will also act as a guiding hand in its resolution. Is it a matter of ambiguous roles and job responsibilities? Then the problem lies with the organisational structure, and it can easily be resolved by taking away the blame game from the parties involved and needs to be addressed organisationally. Perhaps the problem lies with a specific employee and their attitude, which in turn reveals that the action to be taken needs to address the employee and their behaviour.

4. Meet Face to Face with all Parties Involved

Whenever possible, have a face-to-face meeting with all the parties involved to resolve the conflict. Technology may be your friend in other instances but creating a safe environment where both parties are given the opportunity to speak freely will help eradicate miscommunications and misunderstandings that arise from an email thread. However, don’t hold a face-to-face meeting when tensions run high, as you don’t want to be caught in the middle of an actual fight.

5. Offer Guidance

Dealing with conflict in the workplace doesn’t only mean a disruption of workflow. The aftereffects can remain for a long time unless they are resolved promptly and professionally. As a member of the HR department, you will be required to offer guidance to resolving the conflict without remnants of unfairness, favouritism or rejection. Once the root cause is determined, your guidance and management skills are essential into the resolution of the conflict and the return of a healthy working environment.

6. Consider it an Opportunity for Growth

While unwanted and disruptive, conflict has the opportunity to become a basis of growth and evolvement. Because it sometimes arises out of operational or organisational issues, conflict offers a distinctive perspective in identifying problems and a unique opportunity to address them. In the ever-evolving digital world, a conflict can be viewed as a signal that change is necessary and welcome in order to for the company to move forward and improve.

7. Respond – Don’t React

We often find ourselves reacting to an issue, sometimes even instinctively, that we fail to solve it or even make it even more pressing. Managing a conflict should not be about reacting to it but rather responding in an organised and focused way that will help resolve it rather than throw fuel to the fire. While each management style may differ, reacting to situations at volatile times will only lead to the situation spiralling out of control. Additionally, if you are a reactive manager, this vulnerability may create more problems in the future for yourself if exploited.

8. Identify Barriers that Hinder Workplace Peace

Barriers such as gender, age, cultural heritage and personal history that are otherwise overlooked come into intense focus at times of conflict. On the same note, at difficult times, you get a clearer view of the character of a person. While not the root cause of the problem, discrimination and disrespect constitute a significant issue facing the workplace, and no tolerance should be made for either.

9. Communicate to the Team

Conflict can invariably affect the workforce outside the conflicting parties. The impact can upset even the most stable of work environments, and multi-way communication is essential in the continuity and prosperity of the workplace. While addressing the conflict per se shouldn’t be the focal point, a manager needs to ensure that there are no lasting effects and that the company culture and values are understood, respected and upheld. Additionally, any concerns or upset should be smoothed out for the work setting to return to the desired levels and operations to resume optimally.

How you manage your team or workforce or how you run your business is entirely up to you, and it reflects your personal management style. However, taking into consideration the above strategies can be a saving grace no matter what the conflict. As in any situation, respect is earned, and how you manage conflict will not only earn you brownie points with your staff but with senior management, too.

Both seasoned managers and new risers need to display emotional and professional maturity that will enable them to handle difficult situations with the right attitude and mindset, and will set them apart from unfit managers with despotic tendencies.

The ‘off with their heads!’ mentality may have worked to instil fear in her subjects, but the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland is probably not the mentor you want to have as a manager. Plus, her husband pardoned most of the sentenced subjects behind her back, so it was all for nothing, anyway.

Have you had to deal with conflict in the workplace? We look forward to hearing about it and how you dealt with it in the comments section below.