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how to deal with a work conflict

Updated: Jan 6, 2023

You’ve got a solid team, good professionals. Does it guarantee a no-conflict environment? Positively not. Conflict, clash of ideas, clash of feelings, clash of egos are an inevitable part of the life of a human being, within home and work situations. Below is a quick guide on how to navigate the latter.

The business situations usually fall under one of the categories:

  • Business as usual

  • Abnormal time with high pressure

When conflict happens in the business as the normal environment - with a probability close to a hundred out of a hundred the cause was a miscommunication. Here comes the importance of speed, acting quickly. With radical transparency and without a bias you break down the situation into specific actions that took place. Let people elaborate on each action they’ve taken, a goal, an objective they pursued. Avoid generalization of any form or shape when speaking about a conflict. How silly it might look, I actually practice breaking a conflict situation down by writing it on a whiteboard, with a timeline of events that might have led to or were part of the miscommunication.

And remember, the objective of any conflict resolution intervention is not to make everybody happy, rather to de-root misunderstanding, feeling a grudge at its very inception. In such discussions, all parties feel uncomfortable as we go through the process, yet in the end, the field gets clear for concentrating on the real battle - market challenges, creating value for the customers, as a team.

The second kind of conflict tends to occur when we are dealing with high-pressure situations (it might be seasonal, project-based). During this time the high stakes in the business get overlapped with an overall emotional and physiological exhaustion of people. This is when everything, virtually a cold cup of coffee, could be sometimes translated, perceived as “This organization, this manager, this co-worker, the projects and the market are against me. I am not appreciated”. In my experience in such situations, there is very little reason to go into a detailed flow of the events. Here you are most likely dealing with the human side of an employee, and not his professional capabilities. Accordingly, here you appeal to the human virtues. Compassion, understanding that everybody is battling something that others are not aware of.

There are mistakes, missteps many of us do. Once the two people or more discuss the situation, revealing their intention, misinterpretations - both leave the room with that chapter closed. An issue, once it is truly addressed must not come back as a part of a future conflict. If a person agrees the conflict has been resolved, but with time brings the same situation as a shred of evidence in the future discussion - the person undermines his or her credibility in conflict resolution, making future discussions fruitless.

As a manager of people, of different levels and capabilities, you soon understand there is rarely a situation when it is one person’s fault. It is either two people's fault or it is an organization as a whole with its setup, policies and cultures that create an environment for conflict, so it is a person and an organization's fault.

Going back to the concept of a rotten apple in a basket. Where there is a team member who is there to undermine the team's performance and work (guided by all kinds of intentions - lack of professionalism, insecurities, poor upbringing, incompetence, personal issues). Such people must leave, sooner or later, better - sooner.

Lastly, the overall quality of the team, company when it comes to conflict management is defined by an individual employee’s ability to apologize sincerely for their own misjudgement, his ability to close the situation, and even more importantly - ability communicate openly. While the first two factors are pertinent to an individual, the last factor is the responsibility of an organization to nurture the culture where such communication is possible and welcomed.


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