Dissecting Workplace Conflict

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By Lisa Wilson, MSW



Workplace conflict is inevitable. Even if you and all of your coworkers are the most agreeable people on the planet, you can’t possibly agree on everything 100% of the time. Nor should you. It’s the diversity of ideas that we bring to our jobs that make our organizations well-rounded.

When conflict in the workplace is unresolved or poorly managed, it can have a negative impact on the entire company. Productivity, absenteeism and turnover can all be impacted by conflict between individuals, departments or teams.

On the other hand, conflict that is handled productively has the potential to bring about positive change. Consider the following:

  • Conflict fosters an awareness that problems exist.
  • Discussing conflicting views can lead to better solutions.
  • Challenging old assumptions can lead to changes in outdated practices and processes.
  • Conflict requires creativity to find the best outcomes.
  • Conflict raises awareness of what is important to individuals.
  • Managing conflict appropriately helps build self-esteem.
  • Managing conflict well is a sign of maturity.
  • Conflict can encourage people to grow.

Since we have established that conflict is inevitable and could potentially be helpful, let’s take a look at some positive ways to address conflict at work. Take note, these ideas can work for all types of conflict, including disagreements with family and friends.

4 Ways to Address Work Conflict

  1. Communicate and acknowledge that a difficult situation exists. Remember, this is not the time to attack or assign blame. Focus on the problem, not your opinion of the other person’s character. Communicate respectfully.
  2. Listen Carefully. It’s essential to give your complete attention to the person who is talking. Do not interrupt the other person. Make sure you’re getting the message he or she intends to send. Rephrase and repeat back what you’ve heard to confirm understanding.  Ask clarifying questions if needed.
  3. Find an agreement. Your conversation might primarily focus on the disagreements, but resolution is possible only when you find points of agreement. You should emerge from the experience with some positives instead of all negatives. Try to shed light on commonalities.
  4. When conflict involves hurt feelings it is important to acknowledge those feelings and find a solution that begins to mend them.

Now that we’ve shared some ideas for resolving conflict, let’s look at some common types of work conflict.

4 Types of Work Conflict

  1. Interdependency-based conflict. Interdependency-based conflict happens when an employee has to rely on someone else’s cooperation, input or output to get their job done. It can often be resolved when tasks are effectively delegated. This type of conflict can be minimized by clarifying what everyone should be doing in their role so they’re all on the same page when deadlines approach.
  2. Work-Style Differences. Everyone has their own unique style of working in order to complete assigned tasks. We may prefer a particular work style, but sometimes in groups, teams must collaborate to come up with an idea greater than one mind could think up individually. Mutual respect and understanding applies here, as it does throughout the workplace and any interaction involving other people.
  3. Personality Clashes/ Personality based conflict. Personality clashes at a workplace are generally fueled by perceptions about someone’s actions, character or motives. We’re not always going to like everyone we meet, and it’s not easy to work with someone whose personality we find distasteful. It’s helpful to remember that who we perceive someone to be is not necessarily who they actually are.
  4. Creative Idea Conflict. When it comes to idea brainstorming, conflict is actually an excellent opportunity to make the idea even better. Employees need to recognize the ideas of others, voice their own, and then gather the best pieces together for a stunning solution.

Perhaps you are willing to handle a conflict maturely, but your co-worker is taking a negative approach. In those situations, ask yourself if the behavior is disruptive to business functions or just annoying. For example, snickering and eye-rolling is annoying, but can be ignored. However, failing to share information or sabotaging projects is clearly disruptive. Disruptive behavior should be documented, so you can provide your supervisor or management with specific examples of how the behavior is negatively impacting your work.

Finally, seek out resources in your workplace designed to help with conflict resolution. For example, is there a training offered or can a mentor help? Reaching out to your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) can be helpful. Thankfully, conflict management is a skill that can be learned and improved upon by anyone.