Understanding and managing conflict in the workplace

Christa Ludlow, Director

Dealing with conflict in the workplace is a task that many managers dread. As a result they may avoid it, leaving it to fester and spread. Or they may rush headlong into the conflict with good intentions, but inadequate skills. One step which is often overlooked is identifying the nature of the conflict, then using a tailored approach for resolution. In this article we look at how to respond to 3 kinds of conflict.

Task conflict

This involves disagreements about concrete issues such as:

  • application of policies and procedures
  • disagreement about decisions
  • how to approach a project or task

Psychological safety – people feeling safe to voice a different opinion, disagree or admit when things go wrong – is essential for constructive task conflict.

If it is a task conflict, then:

  • gather information so you understand the issues
  • try to identify common ground; for example wanting the best for the organisation, but disagree on how to achieve that
  • bring in an independent “expert” or look at how others have addressed this same problem in the past
  • keep the discussion on the issues and do not let it become personal.

A leader or mediator may need to assist the disagreeing parties to communicate and work on a solution together.

Relationship Conflict

Relationship conflict arises from differences in personality, behaviours, and self-beliefs.

It would be a boring world if everyone had the same personality. It can be helpful to look at the whole personality, not just the aspects which irritate us. What are that person’s strengths? What do they do well?

Often people exhibit what are termed “difficult behaviours” because of a reaction to stress or threat. Or it may reflect their deepest beliefs about themselves and the world, such as:

  • “The world should be a fair place and I should always be treated fairly.”
  • “People should always have the same rules and values that I have.”

These beliefs may lead us to overgeneralise – “My ideas are always overlooked”; to filter information that does not suit our belief – “She gave him that job because he’s her favourite”; and label others – “He’s a small-minded dictator”.  

Resolving a relationship conflict involves getting the people involved to focus on the behaviour and not the person and testing their world view against reality. This is challenging and you may need a skilled mediator or coach to assist.

Values Conflict

This can arise from fundamental differences in politics, religion, ethics, and other deeply held beliefs. We saw this during the COVID-19 epidemic where conflict arose over measures requiring the wearing of masks and vaccination.

These techniques may help a dialogue between two people with conflicting values –

  • Don’t intend to persuade the other person; instead have a goal of learning.
  • Look for points of agreement and common values and build on them – “I think we both want to…”
  • Hedge your claims instead of trying to shut down an argument – “There’s some data that shows that…”
  • Acknowledge other perspectives – “I understand that there are worries about…”
  • Reframe positively – “I think it’s great when we…”

Key points to remember

First identify if it is a task, relationship or values conflict, or a combination of them. Then address the conflict by using targeted approaches. In all three types, identifying common ground and using that to build a dialogue is a good approach. Solutions that the parties identify themselves are most likely to last.

WEIR’s accredited mediators can assist with resolving workplace conflicts and train or coach your managers to manage conflicts in their team. Contact WEIR for more information.