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What to do when things get tense? 7 tips to handle workplace conflict

June 27, 2022 - 18 min read

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What is conflict in the workplace?

5 causes of conflict in the office

4 types of conflict in the office

How to identify conflict in the office

How to handle workplace conflict

Handling workplace conflict with remote teams

How to prevent conflict in the office

Knowing how to handle workplace conflict is a valuable skill. 

Perhaps you have a coworker who gets on your nerves. You never understand their viewpoint or opinions, and it bothers you. Or, maybe your boss doesn't do a great job managing conflict, and you feel like your voice isn't heard.

Believe it or not, workplace conflict is more common than you think. In a recent survey, 4 out 5 employees in the UK reported they don’t feel equally heard at work. And 85% of employees agreed that conflict in the workplace is inevitable. 

But workplace conflict isn't always a bad thing. When you know how to handle conflict and have difficult conversations in the office, it can improve your work environment. 

Many of us were taught that avoiding conflict is the best route, but sometimes conflict can be productive. We’re here to teach you how to handle conflicts in the office productively and efficiently.

 

What is conflict in the workplace?

Conflict in the workplace happens when team members have disagreements. These differing opinions can come from personalities, work styles, ideas on how to approach the work itself, and beyond. Team conflict is, unfortunately, common. 

Conflict can happen in any setting — even through a Zoom meeting. We might express it through our body language and words. People also express their disagreement through acts of defiance against other people's viewpoints or the quality of their work. Failing to use active listening skills suggests disrespect and leaves room for animosity. 

But would you be surprised to learn that high-performing teams thrive off of conflict? Experts have determined that disagreements indicate that team members feel comfortable and safe expressing their thoughts and ideas. It creates a company culture that takes disputes and uses them for creative and diverse views. 

Plus, decision-making is more varied because multiple perspectives are heard through the problem-solving process.

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6 causes of workplace conflict 

There’s no single root cause of conflict in the workplace. After all, behind every conflict is a human being. We all show up to work as our whole selves, which means conflict is likely inevitable. That said, most workplaces struggle with similar issues. 

When you boil it down, there are six common causes of workplace conflict: 

  1. Disagreements on how to complete tasks
  2. Challenges with leadership and behavior from management
  3. Poor communication of responsibilities and expectations
  4. Office politics that cause tension or unhealthy competition between coworkers
  5. Discrimination in the workplace or a hostile work environment
  6. Personal experiences that impact team member's mood and work performance

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4 types of conflict in the office

We can't label all conflicts as the same because conflict comes in various forms. Problem-solving for some types of conflict is easy, while others have a more complicated resolution process.

Here are four types of workplace conflict:

1. Workstyle conflict

We're all different workers and students, and sometimes our differences can cause conflict. Perhaps you like to be more organized with your work while your coworker likes a trial and error technique. Different working styles can make it difficult for team members to understand each other's approaches to the same work.

2. Leadership approach conflict

The management in your workplace may have leadership styles that don’t align. Team leads with poor listening or conflict resolution skills will hurt their team by failing to address conflict. If different managers have varying approaches to problem-solving, their potential disagreements over attempts to resolve a conflict might make things worse.

3. Personality conflict

Personality conflict is the most common. People may disagree and argue over character traits, values, hobbies, interests, and more. We can't be best friends with everyone we meet. But when we don't enjoy each other's different personalities, it can make for a frustrating work environment.

4. Department-based conflict

Perhaps you work in the marketing department but you work closely with the field and sales teams. Recently, the marketing requests to support the field have really stretched your bandwidth, causing you to work late.

The additional demands are causing strain between the departments, especially without a clear idea of the workload to come. The conflict between departments can be challenging to handle if communication isn't clear. This can lead to pent-up frustration or minor disagreements that eventually grow into a real problem.

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How to identify conflict in the office

While some team members aren't afraid to voice their opinions and thoughts, others are. Knowing the signs of conflict — even subtle ones — will help you identify it early on. Check out this list of four ways you can identify workplace conflict:

  1. Coworkers who change their behavior when others come around: This can be a sign of discomfort in the workplace. If employees are avoiding honest conversations and not acting authentically, it will likely build up and explode into workplace conflict eventually.  
  2. There's a decrease in productivity and effective collaboration: Team members in conflict will spend their time gossiping, arguing, or avoiding work altogether. That can cause extra, distracting stress and harm productivity. If a team or individual’s performance is going down, workplace conflict could be the reason. 
  3. Employees begin to quit their jobs: This is a surefire sign that there’s some unresolved conflict within the organization. Many people would prefer to join a new company than handle workplace disputes head-on. 
  4. Team members directly or indirectly bring up complaints: If employees can’t work out conflicts themselves, you’ll start to hear about it. Even if the complaints aren’t as obvious as “I’m so annoyed at my manager." But they can still point to workplace conflict (“I hate going into the office” could be code for conflict with the boss).

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How to handle workplace conflict

Addressing a dispute might be tense, awkward, or worse, but resolving the conflict will be worth it in the long run. If you can learn how to handle workplace conflict well, it will benefit your employees, your organization, and your own professional growth. 

Whether you’re trying to mediate between your colleagues or are directly involved, here’s your eight-step guide to handling workplace conflict:  

  1. Deal with conflict as soon as you can, rather than put it off. Facing conflict head-on is hard. However, waiting too long to address it can negatively impact employee productivity and engagement. Encourage a culture of accountability that pushes you and your employees to take responsibility for difficult conversations. Do the hard thing and handle conflict ASAP — trust us, you’ll be glad you did.
  2. Determine the type of conflict you're dealing with. Begin by looking for the cause of the conflict. Then, try to identify if it’s specifically a task, relationship, or value conflict. If you know what type of conflict it is, you can work to resolve it with specific tactics for that situation. If you skip this step, you’re likely to waste time trying to address issues irrelevant to the real conflict. 
  3. Ask both parties to communicate respectfully and maturely. Before the discussion begins, everyone should make a commitment to be respectful. Agree that aggressive language, yelling, and other immature behaviors are off-limits. Once you do that, you can begin to calmly and effectively handle any workplace conflict. 
  4. Find common ground between the people engaging in conflict. The best way to handle workplace conflict is to start with what you can agree on. If you’re directly involved in the conflict, slow down and focus on results instead of who’s right. If you’re the mediator, observe the conversation and help point out the common ground others may not see. 
  5. Listen attentively when people share their side of the story. Active listening is one of the most valuable professional skills you can possess. No matter your role in workplace conflict, it’s easy to begin sharing your opinion with little regard for the other people involved — that’s just human nature. However, to reach a resolution, you must step back and prioritize listening over talking. Ultimately, that will encourage the other person to do the same when it’s your turn to speak. 
  6. Brainstorm possible solutions as a team, not individually. When it comes to workplace conflict, it can be tempting to problem-solve all on your own. Sometimes, it feels easier to work independently rather than collaboratively. However, if you want to achieve a lasting resolution, you’ll need to motivate your team to get involved — if you do this, employees will feel a sense of ownership that can prevent future conflicts. 
  7. Create an action plan, and then act on it. Once you’ve managed to actually get workplace conflicts into the open, it’s time to really resolve them. Just like any other work goal, this requires creating a concrete plan and following through. It doesn't matter what the plan is exactly — just that you commit to it and resolve the conflict as a result. 
  8. Identify any lessons learned from the conflict. Congratulations! You’ve learned how to handle workplace conflict like a pro. Now, to keep growing, identify what went well, and what didn’t. Could you have avoided an unnecessary drama? Could you have addressed the conflict earlier? Or was it all smooth-sailing? Work with your whole team to gather learnings from the conflict so that you can work to avoid similar situations in the future.

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What about remote teams?

Managing conflict with a remote team can be a unique challenge in itself. However, there are a few things you can do to set yourself up for success.  Here are 3 tips for maintaining open, effective communication with your virtual teams

  1. Make the most of your video and phone calls. Ensure everyone has the chance to speak up about concerns, questions, or disagreements — if you don’t, conflicts between remote team members could go undetected for months. 
  2. Create a platform just for feedback. For example, at BetterUp, we have different Slack channels (like #product-feedback) to help raise different ideas and perspectives. 
  3. Regularly ask your employees for feedback. If you empower your team through feedback, you set up open lines of communication that will help you address conflict earlier and even avoid it altogether. 

Doing all of this will build trust with your remote team, helping each employee know that although they work remotely, they can still speak up for themselves and handle conflict in a healthy, productive way.  

How to prevent conflict in the office

Sometimes, one of the worst ways to handle conflict at the workplace is to step in. You don't need to sweat over shutting down all conflict because some of it leads to more significant innovation, more creativity, and wider viewpoints for the whole team. Embracing constructive conflict can teach people new skills and boost productivity, even if some disagreements come first. 

You want to prevent any conflict that makes people feel unsafe and hesitate to use their voices. No team member should feel like their participation is being limited. A team member whose voice is being restricted is experiencing toxic conflict. This is the kind of conflict you need to prevent and shut down. 

Toxic conflict isn’t always preventable — but you can make it less common. Here are four ways to prevent conflict from overrunning your office:


  1. Work on a company culture that lets team members feel comfortable at work

  2. Lead by example and model the behavior you want to see
  3. Drive home your business's values and the goals you're working towards
  4. Have monthly seminars (or webinars) that teach employees about respect and ways to combat bullying or gaslighting

Moving forward

Now that you know the basics of how to handle conflict in the office, you’re ready to put them into practice. Stepping into a leadership role or being a good team player is hard, but you’ll have opportunities to improve these skills. 

At the heart of resolving conflict is growth. Oftentimes, if you feel uncomfortable, it’s because you’re stepping outside of your comfort zone

But in order to reach our full potential, we all need some help on our self-improvement journey. BetterUp can provide the guidance you need to lead by example and communicate with your team the kind of behavior you want to see in your work environment. And through working one-on-one with a coach, you can further your professional and personal development.

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Published June 27, 2022

Madeline Miles

Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.

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