Conflict Management Strategies for Easing Workplace Tension

There is conflict that’s healthy, and then there’s the destructive type that causes business disruption and personal animosity among employees. Here are the best conflict management strategies.

Updated March 11, 2020

Workplace conflict is costly — very costly, as a matter of fact. According to one research study, U.S. workers spend approximately 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflict. In dollar terms, that’s $359 billion in paid hours.

Although conflict happens a lot in the workplace, when left unresolved or dealt with improperly, it could fester and result in:

  • Frequent work disruptions
  • Illness or increased absenteeism for employees trying to avoid it
  • Low team morale
  • Operational inefficiency
  • Significantly lower business productivity
  • Project failure
  • Employee turnover

This is why possessing conflict management skills is critical to keeping business operations running as usual.

In this guide, we’ll discuss what workplace conflict is, why it happens, and the common conflict management styles used in the workplace.

Overview: What is conflict management?

Conflict management is the implementation of processes and strategies that aim to decrease the negative impact of conflict. Its ultimate objective is not to eliminate conflict, because like it or not, conflict is bound to happen when people work together, but to harness the potential upsides of conflict to enhance team and business outcomes.

Healthcare practitioners must first fully understand the underlying cause of an ailment to correctly address it.

The same can be said of conflict management. Identifying the root cause is a vital first step to properly managing conflict. There are many possible reasons why conflicts occur, including:

  • Personality differences: Different people from different backgrounds hold differing views, interests, and values. When beliefs and opinions clash, conflict may ensue, with team members responding in ways detrimental to team morale.
  • Ambiguous workplace roles: Confusion occurs when roles are not clearly defined and employees aren’t sure whom to approach for certain decisions, escalations, or approval.
  • Poor communication: When information is poorly disseminated, vital details may fall through the cracks, which can severely impact product quality, work scope, timelines, and budgets.
  • Underperformance: Underperforming team members, such as those constantly late or absent or who consistently turn in mediocre work as evidenced by their individual performance measures, can drag an entire team down. Needless to say, this will make many people unhappy, particularly those always bringing their A-game to the table.
  • Stress and burnout: Unfair distribution of duties, usually as a result of a lack of workforce planning and a systematic way to keep track of human resources or HR metrics, is one way to instigate conflict. It results in tired, unhappy, burned-out employees.
  • Unrealistic expectations: Conflict can arise when employers or managers expect too much from employees, such as when they require them to work long hours, making it difficult to perform childcare and other household duties.
  • Scarce resources: When employees must compete for resources in order to get their jobs done, conflict will inevitably follow.

In many organizations, employees are expected to sort out their differences and come to a professional agreement before team leaders, project managers, or department heads step in. If the conflict is between an employee and a manager, a manager and another manager, or when a valued employee is in danger of leaving in response to unresolved conflict, the HR department typically takes over.

Strategic human resource management aligns human resource processes with organizational goals. Organizations can benefit from employees that know how to work harmoniously together.

What to consider when managing workplace conflict

Although conflicts are normal in most business settings, resolving them is no walk in the park. Different people respond to conflict differently. If you’re a manager attempting to iron out disagreements in the workplace, there are a few things to consider in order to not aggravate an already difficult situation.

1. Finding the root cause

Certain people, such as a bully or someone who takes undue credit or misrepresents roles, will likely cause problems in the workplace.

So will an incompetent team member who slows everyone down. But often, when you dig deep enough, you’ll find that conflict is not because of one specific person or group of people but because of work style differences or certain organizational policies.

2. Asking the right questions

People will naturally take a defensive stance when in conflict with a colleague. But in general, they mean well and simply view things differently. When attempting to uncover the reason for a rift, questions to ask can include open-ended questions that begin with what, how, or why — even where or who, depending on the situation.

For example, “What about the situation upset you?”

Questions that attempt to understand where the other person is coming from rather than who right allowed you to look beyond the current problem. They provide a more holistic view of the situation. For example, “What do you think makes the other person right?”

3. Questioning the right people

To get to the bottom of things, it’s important that you not only ask the right questions but that you ask them of the right people. This means interviewing people on the ground, people who are close to the action. Also, you want a full range of opinions instead of just a few in order to fully grasp the big picture.

4. Keeping everyone aligned

One primary reason for conflicts is that roles and responsibilities are not clearly laid out. You can address this by making use of an organizational chart that documents or illustrates your company’s reporting hierarchy.

You may use diagramming tools to create your org chart or take advantage of HR software systems that either have a diagram feature built-in or integrate with third-party options for creating charts.

In the case of dysfunctional employees, your employee handbook, which ideally should be available for on-demand access in your company’s HR software, should discuss in no uncertain terms how your company deals with team members who are causing problems.

5. Encouraging participation at all levels

Creating an ideal workspace isn’t just the manager or the HR department’s responsibility.

Everyone, from the guy in the mailroom to the CEO, has an important role to play. For real change to take effect in any organization, there has to be at least one person to advocate for change in every department.

Conflict management strategies you can use

Different people approach conflict differently, which means there is no one way to address workplace conflict. As such, the most appropriate conflict management technique will, for the most part, depend on the situation and the parties involved.

The Thomas-Kilmann conflict management model classifies five different conflict resolution styles or modes based on two dimensions: assertiveness, the degree to which a person attempts to satisfy their own concerns; and cooperativeness, the degree to which a person attempts to satisfy the other party’s concerns.

Screenshot of the Thomas-Kilmann conflict management theory or model.

The five conflict-handling styles or modes, according to the Thomas-Kilmann conflict management theory or model.

Strategy #1: Competing

Competing is on the top left-hand side because it takes a highly assertive and completely uncooperative stance to resolving conflicts. The goal is to win or beat the other party. Often called the “win-lose” approach, it’s power-oriented and only seeks to defend its own position, usually at the expense of others.

What to keep in mind about competing:

  • Use this option during emergency situations: This approach works best when time is of utmost importance, such as during calamity situations when everyone has to be escorted out of the premises.
  • Refrain from using your power or rank to bully the other party to submission: Outside emergency or life and death situations, this technique is likely to cause even more conflict down the line.

Strategy #2: Collaborating

This is the holy grail of conflict management. It’s at the top right-hand side of the diagram because it’s both assertive and cooperative.

What to keep in mind about collaborating:

  • It’s best employed when looking to uncover new solutions: Whether you’re looking for solutions to existing or anticipated problems, collaboration makes room for everybody’s opinions, ideas, and suggestions to find the “win-win.”
  • Reaching a consensus is not easy: Often, it requires time, patience, a high degree of trust, and a lot of listening to come up with the best outcome. But the good news is it can be done.

Strategy #3: Compromising

Compromising is smack in the middle because it’s both assertive and cooperative, but only to a certain degree.

What to keep in mind about compromising:

  • The aim is to find a middle ground: The parties on both sides of the conflict get something but also have to give something up to arrive at a solution acceptable to everyone, which is why it’s also referred to as a “lose-lose” scenario.
  • Focus on what could be achieved instead of what would be lost: Highlight the benefits of the compromise, not what each party would have to sacrifice. This way, people are more likely to accept the result.
  • Compromising may trigger more conflicts: Although less likely to cause problems than other conflict resolution styles, such as avoiding or competing, lingering dissatisfaction may cause future disagreements, especially among teams who will have to keep working together.

Strategy #4: Avoiding

Avoiding is situated at the bottom left of the diagram because it’s both unassertive and uncooperative. People who avoid conflict pretend that it doesn’t exist and hope for it to go away with time.

What to keep in mind about avoiding:

  • Some things you just have to let go: Avoiding conflict is appropriate when the issue is trivial and you have more pressing issues to attend to.
  • Confronting the issue will do more harm than good, albeit temporarily: When a situation is emotionally charged, avoiding it may give everyone time to cool down and think more rationally.
  • Some conflicts don’t resolve themselves: Ignoring a conflict may result in a much bigger conflict. For example, employers ignoring employees’ repeated requests to review their benefits packages may find themselves being indicted in a costly labor lawsuit.

Strategy #5: Accommodating

Accommodating is on the bottom right of the diagram because it’s the most cooperative but also the least assertive. Also called harmonizing or peacekeeping, it’s when you give in to the demands of the other party, without any regard for your own concerns. Like all the other styles we’ve discussed so far, accommodating has its uses.

What to know about accommodation:

  • Give in if it means better options or solutions: Acquiescing doesn’t sound so bad if it results in better organizational outcomes.
  • Accommodate only when you can do so cheerfully: Accommodating works best when winning is more important to the other person and losing is of little consequence to you.
  • Acquiesce to preserve personal relationships: People who give rather than take are usually sensitive to the needs of others and find satisfaction in helping.
  • Don’t be a victim: People prone to giving in can easily be victimized by the combative, competing types. Also, when you give in simply to avoid conflict, people may see you as weak or lazy.

Maintain workplace harmony through conflict management

Conflict in the workplace is not always a bad thing. Sometimes, it’s only when conflict arises that hidden problems are brought to the fore. It’s easy to pin the blame on one person or a small group of people, but often, the reasons for conflict go way deeper.

An understanding of the different conflict management strategies and considerations, combined with a workforce analytics system that keeps track of essential workforce metrics, will allow leaders to make informed, data-driven decisions that will ultimately help them create a workplace where everyone can grow and thrive.