A Quick Guide to Workplace Conflict Resolution

4th March 2024
 minute read

Table of contents

Navigating workplace conflict can be a minefield. Conflict — whether stemming from professional disagreements or a clash of personalities — can go well beyond the parties directly involved, creating stress and tension throughout an organisation. 

A big challenge of workplace conflict is that it isn’t always obvious. People can be afraid of the ramifications of revealing disputes at work, meaning that issues can simmer long-term beneath the surface (even in teams that seem outwardly harmonious).

Often, leaders can be unsure of how to resolve conflicts between individuals or groups. This means that clashes and disputes can be left unresolved, seriously affecting employee wellbeing. Failing to address workplace conflict can also jeopardise productivity and result in absenteeism or the loss of talented employees. That is why it is crucial to create a workplace culture where conflict is prevented from escalating and is also resolved healthily when it arises.

What can cause conflict in the workplace?

The first step in resolving workplace conflicts is understanding the common causes. In research spanning from  2002 to 2009, Art Bell and Brett Hart identified eight primary reasons for workplace conflict, as follows:

  • Conflicting working styles
  • Conflicting needs
  • Conflicting perceptions
  • Conflicting goals
  • Conflicting pressures
  • Conflicting roles
  • Conflicting personal values
  • Unpredictable policies

Added to this, unhealthy or unhelpful workplace communication styles can also exacerbate conflict, as can mental health issues in individuals. 

Issues caused by conflict in the workplace

Conflict in the workplace can have a serious effect on employee wellbeing, triggering fear, shame, anger and insecurity. Mental health issues that can arise through disputes, disagreements and differences of opinion include:

  • Depression
  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Low self-esteem
  • Anger issues
  • Physical illness
  • Absenteeism
  • Demotivation
  • Loss of productivity
  • Loss of employees

What mental health issues can cause workplace conflict?

While workplace conflict can cause or worsen mental wellbeing issues, the converse can also be true — mental health issues can cause or contribute to tension, disagreements and power struggles.

Often, the working environment can trigger underlying issues in people, from low self-esteem to shame to trauma. This can make conflicts feel much more emotionally intense or threatening. Unresolved personal issues can amplify workplace conflicts, as individuals project past traumas and upsets onto current situations. Often, workplaces can mimic family dynamics, meaning that when people enter into a conflict, they might be replaying old childhood patterns unconsciously. 

For instance, a person who grew up with critical parents might be triggered by having their errors pointed out by their manager, resulting in tension and resentment. Or a person who grew up with controlling or domineering parents may struggle with being in a hierarchy and create conflict with leaders as a result.  

Trauma-induced responses to conflict, characterised by fear or defensiveness, can also make it difficult to negotiate and resolve disputes. Additionally, toxic personalities within organisations can perpetuate conflict through manipulative behaviours, power plays and bullying. This is a particularly serious issue when these personality types enter into leadership positions.

Recognising the relationship between mental health and workplace dynamics is key to fostering a safe and supportive environment conducive to conflict resolution.

Recognising the signs of workplace conflict

Workplace conflict can show up in many forms, from persistent worry and perfectionism to mood changes and impaired performance. Conflict can also fly under the radar while people ‘keep up professional appearances’. That is why knowing the signs makes it much easier to tackle and resolve before it worsens.

Signs of conflict can include:

  • A tense or subdued atmosphere 
  • Individuals seeming unusually quiet or withdrawn 
  • Emotional outbursts, anger or crying
  • Communication issues
  • Increased anxiety 
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Increased sick days
  • Decreased productivity
  • Decreased motivation
  • Loss of employees

This is why it is essential for workplaces to have regular private check-ins with employees, where any issues can be raised confidentially.

The 6 Cs of resolving conflict at work

For leaders and HR managers, the journey towards resolving workplace conflict can encompass six key steps:

  • Clarification
  • Conversation
  • Collaboration
  • Consensus
  • Continuation
  • Compassion

1. Clarification: identify the issue

Surface-level tensions aren’t always the root cause of a conflict — often it is essential to dive deeper to try to identify any underlying problems. These could be related to clashes of personality, values or communication styles 

Discovering the root causes of a conflict involves having open, one-to-one, confidential conversations with each party to gain clarity. Active listening techniques and empathetic engagement lay the groundwork for making these conversations feel safe and supportive. Lumo’s 7 Tips for Managing Difficult Workplace Conversations is a helpful guide.

2. Conversation: foster open dialogue

Gather all involved parties for a mediated conversation, establishing ground rules and boundaries (such as the use of active listening) to maintain a supportive atmosphere. Encourage assertive, non-judgmental communication focused on actions rather than personal attacks. Creating a safe space for dialogue promotes mutual understanding and helps everyone move towards resolution.

3. Collaboration: explore solutions together

Engage in collaborative brainstorming to explore potential solutions. Evaluate the feasibility of proposed resolutions, weighing their merits and drawbacks. Collective input fosters a sense of ownership over the resolution process and encourages everyone to commit to it.

4. Consensus: reach an agreement

Work towards a consensus together, acknowledging that compromise might be necessary to achieve a solution that works for all. Ensure that everyone feels validated and respected throughout the decision-making process. Emphasise the importance of fairness and inclusivity in reaching a conclusive agreement.

5. Continuation: monitor progress

Once a consensus has been reached, it is still essential to keep checking in with everyone involved. Schedule regular, one-to-one catchup sessions to see if the conflict resolution process is working. If any issues are raised, then enter into the conflict resolution process from the beginning again to try to reach a new consensus or re-establish the previous one. 

6. Compassion: foster empathy

Compassion isn’t actually a step — it is an essential value that should be present at every stage of the conflict resolution process. Conflict mediation can be very stressful for everyone, as people can fear judgement and professional consequences. That is why it’s crucial to centre empathy, understanding and non-judgment at every stage.

By centering compassion in all communications, you can ensure that everyone feels safe, seen and heard. And by combining the safeguarding of emotional wellbeing with practical resolution strategies, you can nurture greater empathy in the workplace.

What workplace resources can help with conflict resolution?

Maintaining the mental and emotional health of employees can help to lessen conflict at work considerably. Offering training in skills such as communication, active listening and empathetic leadershipempathic leadership can also make a huge difference.

Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) can play a key part in this by offering:

Therapy gives people the chance to work through any underlying personal issues that might be causing or worsening conflicts. Individuals can also seek help for stress, anxiety and other mental health challenges caused by disputes and disagreements at work. 

Navigating workplace conflict requires compassion, communication and collaboration. By embracing the ‘6 Cs’ framework of conflict resolution, organisations can nurture healthy dialogue and mutual understanding. Workplaces should also have clear procedures and policies in place for dealing with tension and disputes. It is also essential to train leaders and HR teams in recognising the underlying signs of conflict, plus equip them with key skills in active listening and meditation.

By prioritising open communication and a collaborative approach to conflict resolution, workplaces can cultivate a culture of safety, empathy and achievement.

A Quick Guide to Workplace Conflict Resolution
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