How to Handle Conflict in the Workplace

It’s a common workplace scenario: News of a shakeup in your department leads to rumors and predictions. Misunderstandings multiply, and tension and stress increase. Conflict ensues.

This is a situation that Beth Fisher-Yoshida, program director of the Negotiation and Conflict Resolution program at the Columbia University School of Professional Studies, sees frequently. “A lot of times we fill in the gaps because we want to know in a very primal level, are we safe? Are we safe, is this a safe environment? Am I not safe? Is that animal going to get me or not? What am I doing?” she says. “And so you’re doing it really out of physical and psychological safety. And so we make up stories to give ourselves that information to help us know what to do and how to respond.”

Fisher-Yoshida looks at the social psychology aspect of workplace conflict. What’s going on inside of a person can also lead to conflict, as can interpersonal and social setting dynamics. A slight misunderstanding between co-workers can develop into a larger issue.

Of course, not all conflict in the workplace is based on misunderstandings. Bullying, sexual harassment, discrimination, as well as toxic work environments can also feed conflicts.

Understanding how conflict develops in the workplace can help you avoid or resolve it yourself. Here’s what you need to know about resolving conflict in the workplace:

— What Is Conflict Resolution in the Workplace?

— Common Examples of Workplace Conflict

— The 5 C’s of Conflict Resolution

— Skills to Help You Resolve Conflict at Work

[Read: Tips for a Career Change Resume]

What Is Conflict Resolution in the Workplace?

Conflict resolution in the workplace involves resolving an immediate issue between workers or departments in an organization as well as any underlying causes of that conflict within the organization itself, which may be systemic, explains Fisher-Yoshida. “A second, deeper, longer-term look would be at understanding the underlying causes of the conflict in the first place … so maybe there’s policy that needs to be changed for performance management or something like that.”

Russell Benaroya, author, coach, speaker and co-founder of Stride Services, a bookkeeping, accounting and strategic advisory services firm, notes that having self-awareness is another key to dismantling workplace conflict. It’s important to understand how your own behaviors play a role in your work environment and in any workplace conflict.

Intercultural conflict is another form of workplace conflict and includes generational differences, gender differences, ethnicity, race, nationality, life experiences and differences in values.

Misperceptions about work projects and people’s work styles may also play a role in workplace conflict. Organizational and departmental values may differ as well.

Differences certainly strengthen any work team; a breadth of perspectives and abilities makes us versatile. But when people aren’t working smoothly together, regardless of factors at the company level or at an interpersonal level, or even in our own individual behaviors, the friction can sometimes transform into a workplace conflict.

[READ: Red Flags That You Have Too Much Stress at Work.]

Common Examples of Workplace Conflict

Miscommunication. Rumors about a pending company restructure and a lack of information can cause tension and conflict in the workplace. In this scenario, Fisher-Yoshida recommends that management resolve the problem by over-communicating about the reorganization. “Over-communicate in the sense that people will make assumptions. And so if you want to check that early, just over-communicate something simple as, ‘We’re working on this. We don’t have any decisions yet, but in the next two to three weeks we’re going to be meeting. And then within a month we’ll let you know,’ and just constant communication about what’s taking place,” Fisher-Yoshida says.

Lack of transparency. Another common workplace conflict results from lack of transparency on how work assignments are distributed or what people are responsible for, Fisher-Yoshida notes. With work projects, for example, this can sometimes lead to perceptions that one person is doing more work than another person. These assumptions can make people feel worn and burdened. Fisher-Yoshida recommends being proactive in such a situation rather than reactive. Create transparency on what the assignment is, what the workload is and how that’s distributed. “So this way, everybody sees what’s going on and there’s no secret. Now if somebody works faster than somebody else, they get done sooner. … If somebody needs more time to reflect on what they’re doing than they had, they should be allotted that more time. But the transparency of how decisions are made is important.”

Perceived lack of equity and fairness. Another common scenario involves co-workers wondering why someone received a promotion over someone else. Assumptions may be made that there is a lack of equity or fairness. “My recommendation for resolving that is to reframe the situation (because) if people think the only way of career advancement is a new title and promotion or more money, then there’s a really narrow range of options that they have,” says Fisher-Yoshida. “If we think instead that there’s a lateral way of growth where you can also develop yourself without a promotion but you can take on different kinds of responsibilities, get more workplace training, develop more skills, have other kinds of opportunities, maybe travel or meet people. And that’s very fulfilling if it’s framed that way, and if the organization really does value it.”

Conflicts in global workplaces. For global workplaces with teammates throughout the world, Fisher-Yoshida recommends defining what a team is. People from different backgrounds may have very different understandings of the word “team,” so talk about what it means to be a team, including how decisions are going to be made, how communication is going to happen and how to handle disagreements.

Retributive policies. Fisher-Yoshida also advises that if companies say they are open to resolving conflict, then they should mean it. Policies that are retributive and punish employees for speaking up about workplace conflict do not help. “If I feel that and I witnessed retribution, I’m going to be really careful about what I say if I need this particular job. And I can’t afford to make waves or to lose my job. Then I’m going to suck it up and just be quiet about things. But that’s not going to be healthy for me emotionally either,” says Fisher-Yoshida. Employees who experience mental stress related to conflict may also experience physical signs of stress. Workplace stress may result in sickness, impact interactions with others in the workplace and lead to absenteeism.

Inner conflict. Conflict in the workplace can also involve what is going on beneath the surface, inside of you. That is because your behaviors manifest in your work environment. Do you have inner conflict? Benaroya’s business leadership book, “One Life to Lead,” emphasizes the importance of “being conscious of how your behaviors show up in the environment that is in service to what you are trying to create.” You should also be aware of your own principles, how you self-manage and how the people around you and your physical environment affect your energy level.

It also helps to be aware of and stay in your “genius zone,” according to Benaroya. He explains, “Everyone has their genius zone. It’s those things that you do that feel effortless and are seemingly unique.” The concept originated from Gay Hendricks, a psychologist, professor and author who wrote “The Big Leap” and “The Genius Zone.” Benaroya says, “Oftentimes, we stay in conflict much longer than we need to. And sometimes, it’s a function of being so far out of our genius zone.” How do you feel about yourself and where you work? To resolve inner conflict, it’s important to find out if you are in the right place for you.

[See: 20 Work-Life Balance Tips and Secrets From CEOs.]

The 5 C’s of Conflict Resolution

Here are the 5 C’s of conflict resolution, according to Fisher-Yoshida and Benaroya:

Communication. Communication is both about what you say and don’t say, notes Fisher-Yoshida. Benaroya says that candor, as well as speaking freely and clearly about conflict, is also essential.

Curiosity. It’s important to be curious, or willing to understand and learn more from the other party involved in a conflict. Having curiosity about the solution to the problem and selecting an action is something that Fisher-Yoshida says will “have the impact on the other party that you want to have.”

Culture. Cultural awareness can help resolve conflicts, Fisher-Yoshida explains. Culture is related to belief systems, values we grew up with, our life experiences, the worldview we’ve developed. All these things create different kinds of lenses or filters that we may notice when we’re interacting with another party. We interpret what other people say and do through our particular cultural lens.

Complexity. Understand that there may be many complex layers to issues within a workplace. For example, there is cultural complexity between what one person intends to communicate and how someone else understands it. These issues can exist between departments, individuals and even within ourselves.

Consciousness. When workers or departments lack awareness of the role they may be playing in a conflict, Benaroya says they are “unconsciously committed to getting into conflict.” He emphasizes that everyone has 100% responsibility for resolving workplace conflict.

Skills to Help You Resolve Conflict at Work

Benaroya notes that having a framework for interaction in a workplace is an effective way to reduce ambiguity when conflicts arise. In other words, all individuals involved need to understand the rules of the game.

Benaroya uses well-known strategies for conflict resolution in the workplace in an exercise for Stride Services that allows parties in a conflict to sync up, fully express issues and take the emotion and drama out of a conflict.

Here’s how: First, create some safety with an opener such as, “Is this an OK time? The reason I want to have this conversation with you is because I care about the work.” This enables people to be more vulnerable and authentic when they communicate.

Next, state the facts. It’s important to understand the difference between the facts and the story you are telling yourself. Share the story you have about that fact. For example, “When I think about this, I feel anxious, scared, nervous.” When responding, the other party should ask if there is anything more to express before working together toward a shared solution.

Benaroya also recommends that employers normalize conflict resolution by bringing such strategies out into the open through sharing examples and training people with role-play exercises.

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