Even the greatest teams can be prone to workplace conflict from time to time. Conflict is a common side effect during difficult times. Many kinds of work stress can cause tensions to rise, like:

  • Meeting deadlines
  • Managing big decisions
  • Mergers
  • Acquisitions
  • Loss of a team member
  • Hiring a new team member

Learning the psychology behind workplace conflict and why it occurs is the biggest weapon you can have to protect yourself and your team when it inevitably arises.

A good leader should be able to spot the signs of rising tension, and step in to fix the situation before an argument breaks out — all while keeping calm and confident. Research suggests that conflict resolution training can improve productivity, teamwork, and employee satisfaction.

This is why I’ve put together a list of everything you need to know about conflict, and techniques you can use to manage it within your team.

Fact # 1: Workplace conflict in teams is REALLY common

Having issues on your team? You are not alone!

Studies suggest that around 85% of employees deal with some level of conflict, with 29% reporting that they are dealing with conflict on a frequent or constant basis.

Trying to eliminate conflict entirely won’t get you very far – the solution is learning to handle it properly when it does arise.

Conflict usually means that individuals have not being given the tools they need to learn how to avoid arguments by communicating disagreements in a more positive way. 

Sometimes, conflict seems to occur around one particular team member – a difficult individual who consistently demonstrates behavior at work that damages the team.  This is known as a ‘toxic personality’, and it is important that leaders carefully manage such individuals. Left without intervention, people with toxic personalities can cause immeasurable damage to the happiness and productivity of the entire team.

It is estimated that around 94% of employees have worked with somebody with a toxic personality during their lives.

If you have somebody with this personality type on your team, conflict resolution is likely to involve more than just a sit down and chat. Dealing with a toxic personality may require disciplinary action, rearranging teams, or other more extreme measures we won’t cover here.

Fact # 2: Workplace conflict costs money

In the United States, it is estimated that the average amount of time an individual spends each week involved in conflict is around 2.8 hours.

Conflict costs an estimated $359 billion in lost time.

This should be a huge cause of concern for all businesses. Thankfully, this huge loss of productivity is not inevitable. All that needs to happen is for leaders to find ways in which to identify conflict as it occurs, work out the root cause, and nip it in the bud before it escalates.

Easy, right? (Okay, not completely easy, but certainly possible – and I’ll teach you how as you read this article.)

Fact #3: More than a third of workplace conflict is caused by professional stress

If you’ve found that your otherwise peaceful team has suddenly broke out in conflict, investigate if there have been changes in their workload, schedule, or expectations.

An estimated 34 percent of conflict is caused by workplace stress.

If you can reduce this workplace stress, you might be able to resolve the conflict at its core, rather than just treat the symptoms – which you might find keep recurring if the underlying cause is stress.

In situations where you’re not sure if conflict is the result of stress, ask your team. Ask how they are feeling, if there is anything that you could be doing differently.

You might find a common complaint from the several members of the team – a really easy fix!

What Causes Workplace Conflict?

Okay, we’ve got to grips with how common conflict is in the workplace, but what is the cause of this behavior?

When we’re talking about these issues, a few main triggers have been identified:

  • Lack of understanding
  • Conflict of interests
  • Organizational changes
  • Lack of established jurisdiction
  • Poor communication
  • Personality clashes

Once conflict has started, individuals may intentionally stop communicating effectively with other members of the team, spread rumors, or confront each other in the office – all damaging behaviors that could permanently hurt the team.

If these issues are not handled correctly, conflict can escalate quickly and become harder to control, sometimes results in bullying, or even verbal or physical violence.

Your Brain During Conflict

Our ancestors before us experienced a lot of conflict when protecting their resources (like shelter, food, and water) from other members of our own species and from members of other species. The conflict response we have evolved as a result, just like our other emotions, have become part of our brains way of keeping us safe.

Inside our brain, we have two amygdala. They sit behind our eyes, and work in a way comparable to an intruder alarm by raising the alarm in response to danger. When we detect a threat, the amygdala sounds the alarm and causes a cascade of different chemicals – including adrenaline and cortisol – to be released into the body. This is our stress response, also known as the “fight or flight” mechanism.

While defending our home from wolves might be a threat long lost to our ancestors history, protecting our reputation in front of our boss elicits exactly the same response.

There are a lot of physical, unconscious changes in our body that happen as we prepare to face our enemy or flee from it like the heart rate speeding up. One of the most profound changes is in our brain.

The activation of the amygdala shuts down the brains pathway to the prefrontal cortex – the part of your brain responsible for making complex and rational decisions.

When you’ve just seen a wolf standing in front of your cave, this makes sense. Drop what you are doing, and run. There is no need for complex decision making when you have just become a tiny prehistoric snack – in fact, it would just slow down the time it took to make the decision to flee. But this response is less helpful in today’s developed world. If you are faced with conflict in the office, you need your brain to be working logically.

This isn’t the only changes that occur in your brain. Have you ever noticed in a fight with your friend that you suddenly can’t remember anything good about them?

It’s a bit of an extreme example, but during conflict your brain becomes forgetful. Scientists don’t know exactly why, but they suspect it’s because of neural pathways being blocked in an attempt to help you make a faster decision or because your brain is flooded with the message – “danger, fight it or run from it, right now”.

These ancient brain mechanisms might have been helpful in our past, but in the modern world we need to find ways to effectively manage conflict, and stop us from making hasty decisions we might regret later.

What is Conflict Management?

Conflict management is a series of methods and techniques that leaders and managers (or anyone else) can use to handle problems that arise within the team.

There are three main things to consider when you’re learning about conflict management.

1. Behavioral, cognitive, and emotional skills are skills that can be learnt (much like emotional intelligence). Some people will find these skills innate – part of their personality almost since birth – but for the vast majority of us, we need to spend some time learning and polishing our ability to manage conflict.

2. You must be motivated to address conflict – remember that statistic further up about how much money a business loses due to conflict. That should be motivation enough alone, but remember the happiness and safety of your team relies on its smooth running too.

3. Facing the problematic situation is always going to be better than ignoring it. It can be tempting to procrastinate dealing with conflict and consider it in your ‘non urgent’ pile of tasks for the day, but you should be considering it as an immediate situation to manage. If you don’t – it will just get worse and harder to handle with time.

Workplace Conflict Management Step by Step

When you notice there is conflict on the team, it is important to start considering if / how you are going to move forwards and help resolve the situation. I’ve compiled this step by step guide to make the process go as smoothly as it can.

Step #1: Firstly, does it really need addressing? 

This decision can only be answered by you. Does the risk of dealing with the conflict offer more reward than if you left it alone on this occasion? If not, it might be worth just letting it be and seeing if it resolves itself. This can cause less conflict than if you get involved.

For instance, compare the two following office complaints. A stack of post it notes were taken without permission from a team members desk.

  • An email was sent announcing the missing post it notes, asking if anyone has taken them, and to please return them as soon as possible.
  • An email was sent which named a suspect in the missing notes, using insulting and belittling language about another member of staff. 

While both of these situations could arise in a much larger conflict, one has already become problematic and should be dealt with immediately (if you hadn’t guessed – the latter). 

Step #2: Collect background information

You need to know everything about the situation at hand. Try to avoid “he said, she said” and instead find the evidence at the root of the problem. Is there any evidence of accusations? Has there been a record of an ongoing conflict? 

Get yourself up to date and learn everything you can about the background of the situation – it will help provide valuable context and you will have a better chance of resolving the conflict.

Step #3: Determine the nature of the conflict

It has been suggested by some scientific studies that if the issue is a one off then only the content of that specific incident needs to be discussed. If the conflict is recurring however, then the pattern of behavior should be talked about with all parties.

Step #4: Consider the best course of action

Based on this information, consider what would be the best way to move forwards. Is there one party that is in the wrong in this situation? Do both sides need to compromise? Has everything just been a big misunderstanding? Consider everyone’s interests when you’re deciding the best course of action, and make sure you keep your own bias as far away from your decisions as possible. Instead, try to view the situation from various angles.

Also be aware of any legal responsibilities you may have as a manager of your company, as well as state and federal employment laws. It can get rather complicated very quickly. When in doubt, reach out to a member of your HR team for support.

Step #5: Find somewhere neutral for the meetings

Often, it is best to avoid your own office for the purpose of conflict resolution – this will immediately put people on edge. Instead consider a neutral meeting room; somewhere with privacy, and enough time to discuss everything without feeling rushed.

Step #6: Know how to mediate a conflict

Can you be a mediator? Here is what you need to keep in mind:

  • Lay down the rules
  • Ask everyone to listen without interruption
  • Encourage all parties to set aside preconceived ideas 
  • Work towards identifying the problem and finding a solution

In order to move forward and heal from the conflict, all parties will have to agree on exactly what has been the problem. This will mean everyone can compare and discuss their issues and potential solutions.

As you work through this together, use open ended questions that don’t impose on the answers of the other parties as much as possible, and discourage individuals from blaming each other.

Once the root problem has been identified, you can move on to brainstorming solutions. 

Step #7: Be tactful

It’s important to be sympathetic in such meetings. It’s not an easy situation for anyone. Phrases such as “I understand that has been difficult” and other expressions of sympathy help set a positive tone of collaboration.

Also, make sure you are listening to what people are saying and try not to approach the issue with your own preconceived ideas. You might think you know exactly what has happened (and hopefully you do have a good idea of the situation) but listening to both parties is imperative to resolve the issue.

Step #8: Know conflict resolution strategies

There are four main strategies when it comes to conflict resolution. As you read through this list, you might notice you tend to use one or two more than the others, or you might use a combination depending on the situation. This step is all about knowing which conflict resolution strategy to use in each scenario.

Each has various advantages and disadvantages (just like leadership techniques ), and it can be valuable to assess each specific conflict you face before you go in with a strategy – being careful to apply the tactic best situated.

Competing 

Competing tactics are usually used by people who have gone into conflict with the intention to win. You can usually identify if someone else (or yourself) is using this technique if they speak or act in ways that suggests they assume one side will ‘win’ and the other sides will ‘lose’.

This technique is limited.

It prevents a more nuanced understanding of the problem, and doesn’t allow for an understanding of the broader picture.

Compromising

The compromising strategy is when both sides reach an agreeable solution that requires sacrificing some of their desires for the sake of peace. An example of this could be if someone wants to work fully from home because their commuting costs are rising higher, but their team has a problem with this as they worry about the remote communication aspect. A compromising strategy here could be that the employee works remotely, but commutes to the office once a week for a meeting. 

When situations that require compromise arise, it is important when compromising to make sure the compromise is fair on both sides.

If carried out successfully, this can be one of the most positive methods to resolve conflict.

Avoiding

This tends to be the least productive way of dealing with conflict. Avoidance as a conflict resolution strategy involves withdrawing from the situation, and is often chosen by individuals when the discomfort and hassle of confrontation exceeds the potential reward of resolution.

While sometimes it can be valuable to not rise to every conflict – as many will resolve themselves and others are too petty to warrant getting involved – avoiding serious conflict will cause more problems long term.

Accommodating

Accommodating is a cooperative strategy defined by one party giving in to the wants of the other, often at their own expense. Sometimes, you will see this as a gracious acceptance of wrong-doing, where an individual will accommodate the other party in the conflict when they realize they themselves were the problem. However, approach this method with caution.

Some individuals will accommodate the needs of others and not leave way for their own wants due to lack of confidence or self esteem. Observe the situation closely, and if you think this might have happened then encourage a more compromising resolution instead.

Here’s the bottom line: The fact that you are reading this article means you are already getting what you need — help! Sometimes it takes different strategies and tactics to solve sticky professional situations. Start with this article. If you need more help go to a leader you trust to get an ally. 

You might also use these helpful articles:

Ready to keep learning? Read on...

As Featured In