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Five Tips for Managing Conflict at Work

January 27, 2022
Woman in meeting talking to frustrated colleagues

There’s no way around it: workplace relationships can be complicated. Sometimes, coworkers become close friends with whom you find yourself spending a lot of time outside of the office. Other times, you and a colleague might not be able to get along no matter how hard you try. When you begin to manage people, these situations can be especially tricky as you try to navigate different emotions and descriptions of how events have unfolded. There’s a reason mediation is such a highly-valued skill.

Conflict in the workplace can arise from many sources, from philosophical differences of opinion on business strategy, to simple clashes between strong personalities. Conflict itself is not always a bad thing—important business decisions are often made as a result of competing ideas, and disagreement can expose potential problems before it’s too late. But whatever the source of the conflict is, a respectable manager should be able to handle it with a well-reasoned, clearly defined plan to ensure it does not grow to an unmanageable intensity that has negative consequences for the organization.

We've outlined five important strategies below to keep in mind when managing conflict at work. By respecting the roots of business disagreements and guiding everyone toward productive resolutions, you can make sure all members of your team work together as smoothly and maturely as possible.

1. Acknowledge the Tension Upfront

The best way through conflict is just that: through it, not around it. There’s no question that managing conflict at work can be uncomfortable, especially if it’s happening between two coworkers with whom you interact on a daily basis. As a superior, it can be tempting for managers to adopt a strategy of ignorance when their employees are butting heads, or to try to diffuse tense situations by projecting a false sense of calm. After all, you might think it doesn’t have much to do with you anyway. But ignoring conflict is not a real solution; it allows bad feelings to fester and can let easily resolvable situations spiral out of control.

Acknowledging, and thus managing conflict at work head-on is a far more effective way of mitigating it, both in terms of preserving relationships between your team members and in bringing the situation to a productive resolution.1 Lead by example and have open, direct communication with your team members to show that you’re invested in the situation and willing to work on a solution. This will preserve their trust in and respect for you as a manager, and can lead them to communicate more straightforwardly with each other as well. By acknowledging and working through business conflicts rather than ignoring them, you create the opportunity for productive, positive new directions for your team and your company that certainly won’t go unnoticed.

2. Be An Active Listener

Once you’ve acknowledged that there is indeed an issue that needs to be addressed, it’s important to engage with whoever is involved openly, fairly, and attentively. There are no favorites when these situations arise. Consciously commit to be an active listener to both sides of the conflict. Usee positive body language to indicate your engagement: sit up straight, face them directly, maintain eye contact, nod, and offer responses. Ask thoughtful and provocative—but always respectful—questions to not only help get to the bottom of the issue, but also to show each employee that you care about their side of the story.2

For instance, business conflicts may often appear to trace back to a single inciting incident, like a meeting that went haywire. However, it’s likely that there are deeper roots to the disagreement (e.g., one employee always feels like they’re being undermined, while the other feels that their ideas aren’t being heard). While you might start by identifying the conflict's apparent source, your intervention can be more effective and have longer-lasting positive effects if you learn to look beyond the “main event” to a lengthier history of tension that might be lying underneath.3 By probing a bit deeper and asking follow-up questions, you can encourage your employees to reflect on their mindset and previous actions more than they might have before.

3. Outline Priorities and Positive Outcomes

To turn conflict resolution in a positive direction, try to direct those who are disagreeing with each other away from what’s upsetting them. This can start by first meeting with them separately instead of together. Rather than getting caught up in the minutia of the disagreement, encourage them to focus instead on what their goals are, what potential outcomes to the conflict would be best for them, and what solution would benefit the company.

One way of promoting positivity and setting reasonable expectations is to ask each individual to outline and rank their priorities. Have them order their desired outcomes in terms of how strongly they feel about achieving them, from "must have" to "can do without," as well as how quickly they would like to see them reached.4 This can reveal potential sites of compromise between people who may otherwise struggle to communicate, and can help establish a timeline for achieving a resolution that would satisfy them both.

4. Don't Just Compromise—Collaborate

Compromise is often upheld as the ideal way to resolve a conflict, whether it’s at work, among friends, or in a romantic relationship. However, compromises—agreements by all involved parties to sacrifice some of their desires for the greater good—often result in lingering dissatisfaction and resentment. An alternative to compromise is collaboration, a more intensive process of communication and cooperation aimed to create a solution that satisfies everyone, rather than a lower ideal that they all find deficient in some way.5

You should be aware, however, that collaboration is not a quick fix. It requires a significant commitment of time and resources and is geared toward long-term progress. Because of this, it might not be an ideal solution for managing conflicts at work with particularly low stakes (e.g., over the use of office supplies), or for issues that need to be addressed quickly and deftly.6

5. Seek Outside Help When You Need It

While it may seem like effective leadership demands that you can solve all of your team's problems, it’s important to know when to take a step back and ask for help with issues you can’t resolve on your own. Some workplace conflict requires the assistance of a third party, which can mean involving your company's human resources department, or even as drastic as inviting intervention from an outside legal counsel.

If a conflict appears intense enough that it could result in someone leaving the organization, or if the disagreement turns personal, bring HR into the process to help diffuse the situation.7 If potential legal issues come up, such as allegations of harassment or discrimination, outside help must be brought in to protect the organization as it works toward a solution. A third-party investigator, mediator, or attorney may be necessary to resolve the most toxic and potentially dangerous complaints that occur.

Effective Managers Aren’t Made Overnight

All of the brightest leaders will have to deal with managing conflict at work at some point during their careers. Savvy managers are able to use their diverse business talents to guide their teams in productive, mutually satisfying directions that improve not only the environment in the workplace, but the work produced by the organization as well.

If you're ready to move into a management role and become an efficient, effective leader for others, consider the Online MBA from Yeshiva University’s Sy Syms School of Business. With classes specifically focused on leadership, emotional intelligence, and people management, this degree is exactly what you need to move to the next level in your career.