Knowing how to handle workplace conflict is a valuable skill. Perhaps you have a co-worker 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.
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.
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:
- Disagreements on how to complete tasks
- Challenges with leadership and behavior from management
- Poor communication of responsibilities and expectations
- Office politics that cause tension or unhealthy competition between co-workers
- Discrimination in the workplace or a hostile work environment
- Personal experiences that impact team member’s mood and work performance
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 co-worker 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.