Top 5 Strategies to Resolve Interpersonal Conflict in the Workplace

It is estimated that managers spend approximately twenty percent of their time handling conflict within their teams.[1] Interpersonal conflict is one of the leading causes of workplace stress and can lead to a deterioration of mental and physical health. Workplace conflict can take up to between 25% and 50% of an employee’s work day! [2]

An unhappy employee (or several) can lead to a de-motivated, hostile environment which is not conducive to productivity. It means businesses lose money due to absence, managers divert their attention to the consequences of conflict instead of work-related tasks and ultimately, employees leave their jobs which means talent is lost and resources are needed to replace them.

Unsurprisingly, more and more businesses are looking at ways to minimise and resolve conflict to mitigate the damage it can cause to a business.

What is Interpersonal Conflict?

Definitions differ and in previous posts I have indicated what a conflict might look like. Sometimes, it can be unspoken. You can probably imagine the type of passive aggressive behaviour that illustrates this: a failure to comply with instructions, being late, eye rolling in meetings when somebody expresses an opinion. These are just a few examples from a long list. It can be very direct and sometimes aggressive. I recall a managing director shouting at me on the office floor because I had been irrational and too emotional (the irony!).

Essentially, interpersonal conflict results from the perception that another person’s interests, values, needs or goals clashes with our own. It can be a disagreement or hostile exchange between two independent parties.

One factor that contributes to this is the perception that both want access to a limited resource such as salary or a promotion. Negative emotion might also be sensed and this may fuel the perception that for example, a manager is getting in the way of achieving your goal of promotion because he doesn’t like you. [3] It could also be a deeply ingrained prejudice that for example, prevents a man from accepting the credibility of a female manager. It can cause conflict between teams within a workplace because two managers are competing with each other and so you can imagine how matters can escalate to upset the office balance.

Why Does it Show up in the Workplace so Often?

Conflict is a normal and inevitable consequence of relating to people, especially in a confined space. The workplace depends on human interaction and communication. People bring with them their own personal goals, needs, experience and perceptions of how others should behave. Add to that, the perceived contract we create in our minds about what we “owe” each other within an employment context and conflict will certainly ensue. It’s also easy to see how conflict arises when there is a perception that access to promotions, salary and other benefits are limited.

How can We Resolve Interpersonal Conflict?

Healthy competition can encourage new ideas and creativity which propels a company forward. Conflict can therefore be constructive and destructive. It helps people and organisations to grow and adapt to changing times and situations. If a business receives a raft of complaints about a service, it’s a signal that it must be changed. It becomes destructive when it leads to violence, aggression and in the workplace, mental, emotional and physical illness. Nobody should ever have to suffer this.  You can influence whether the outcome of conflict is a positive or negative experience by using effective conflict resolution techniques.

Top Tips

Dealing with interpersonal conflict within the workplace can be resolved through communication. Here are some key tips for conducting conversations that result in concrete resolutions that diffuse negative emotion and reinstate relationships. This doesn’t apply to serious conflicts such as allegations of bullying, racial or sexual harassment and it would be best to seek the counsel of your HR department or a legal advisor in those circumstances as more stringent measures may have to be taken especially if a manager or employee feels intimated, frightened or degraded in any way.

  1.  Choose the right place and time to have a conversation. Having a conversation in the middle of the office at a busy time can feel humiliating and the recipient may feel unable to express how they really feel. Choose somewhere private and express the intention that the conversation is meant to air any problems in a confidential and open manner. The other person should not feel as if they are about to be admonished or punished, so take some time to think about the tone you will use.
  2. Be polite, professional and respectful. This isn’t always easy when you feel disrespected as a leader or employee but it is important to remember that you are in the workplace and the purpose of this conversation is to bring about a collaborative resolution. To get others to cooperate, you need to reassure them of your intention to find a solution and to rebuild any lost trust. You could even ask what would need to be done in order to reinstate trust and cooperation which is often a good way to get the other party to talk.
  3. Listen carefully and acknowledge how the other feels. If you can see that the other person is angry, tell them that you have noticed this and ask them why, in a non-judgmental way. It is often helpful to think of active listening as curiosity about the other person. If they do not wish to discuss it, reassure them that you appreciate that this is an awkward situation but you really are trying to work together. Requesting clarification, summarising what they say, repeating important points are all characteristics of active listeners. Accusations, insults and blame are going to worsen things and if you feel that the conversation is going that way, it’s time to take a break!
  4. Try and understand the conflict from the other’s point of view. You may wish to do this before the conversation and it will help you to get past your own perspective and develop empathy for the other person. How does it feel, for example, to be passed over for a promotion for the second year? How does it feel to be the only female of an ethnic minority in a meeting and how could she perceive a failure to take her opinion into account? We don’t all have the same experience but take the time to think of how it could feel to be on the other side of the conflict. This could also help in finding a resolution.
  5. Nip it in the bud early! Conflict, if left without being addressed, can escalate. Resentment, anger, frustration can grow out of control when left unheard. That’s why it’s best to deal with conflicts and disagreements in their initial stages before they fester and cause long-term damage.

What do you think? Leave a comment and tell me about your experiences!

[1] Thomas, K.W., and Schmidt, W.H., “A Survey of Managerial Interests with Respect to Conflict” (1976) Academy of Management Journal (19) 315-318

[2] Hahn, S.E., “The Effects of Locus of Control on Daily Exposure, Coping and Reactivity to Work Interpersonal Stressors: A Diary Study” (2000) Personality & Individual Differences (29) 187-242

[3] Rahim, M.A. Managing Conflict in Organizations (2010, Piscataway)


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