Top tips for understanding and managing conflict at work

What causes conflict at work?

Conflict at work is an inevitable part of employed life. With diverse personalities, working styles, and varying levels of stress, clashes can occur, leading to potential tension and at times strained relationships. However, conflicts can be effectively managed and even resolved through proper communication and conflict-resolution skills. 

Natural tensions are absolutely essential at work, in order to drive forward innovation, and we should not avoid conflicts of all types. The challenges come when conflict in the workplace creates workplace stress and involved parties overstep the mark of what is considered acceptable behaviour.

1. Personality and working style

Differences in personalities, different backgrounds, communication styles, and approaches to work can lead to misunderstandings and conflicts. Some people may prefer to use long emails, whereas others like informal chats. Some people may be very outspoken and confident, and other employees may be more reserved and introverted. As well as different communication styles, people may have differing opinions, and these conflicting perspectives and expectations may create friction among team members and make conflicts arise.

2. Overwork and stress

When we’re tired and overworked, we’re not at our best. We’ve all snapped because we’re stressed and weary, and even though we know this is not effective communication it can be understandable. Overwork and stress also leads to lower productivity and burnout, which can lead to senior leaders being concerned about output, and cause conflict in the workplace between management and team members. 

What is the impact of unresolved conflict at work?

Conflict causing burnout

It’s not just overwork that can cause burnout – so can the stress of conflict. Persistent conflicts can drain employees’ energy and motivation, leading to burnout. This not only affects the individuals directly involved in the conflict but also has a ripple effect on the entire team, organization and company’s success, creating a poor culture and lack of support. Studies show that the more conflicts employees have with colleagues, managers and clients, the more burnout they experience as a consequence.

Poor decision making

When there are too many conflicts between team members it can make it hard to have a properly open dialogue and move forward on decisions. Possible solutions to a challenge may get left behind as disagreements prevail and it becomes impossible to brainstorm solutions and reach common ground and a consensus. This workplace conflict and internal employee disputes can stall a company’s progress, affecting client relationships and ultimately the bottom line.

Low productivity

Unresolved conflicts can disrupt workflow, hinder collaboration, and decrease overall productivity. When employees are focused on conflict rather than their tasks, it diverts their attention from their work responsibilities. The work environment can in itself become draining. 

High turnover and absenteeism

If employee conflict happens too frequently and there is no strategy towards resolving conflict, it can lead to unhappiness at work. A study in The International Journal of Knowledge showed that workplace disagreements in large enterprises are significantly more likely to lead to employees either moving to other departments or leaving the organization altogether. This disruption can affect employees who remain and lower employee morale. They may also start to take significant time off to avoid conflict, causing high rates of absenteeism.


When people are not happy at work they may become disengaged. When employees feel no-one is listening to them, or their opinions cause conflict, it could result in lack of engagement. Gallup reported that employees who are not engaged at work or actively disengaged represent an $8.8 trillion untapped productivity opportunity for global workplaces, and make a strong case for ensuring engagement is high even during tough economic times.

Benefits of conflict resolution

But resolving conflict and making sure that team members and team leaders address issues that arise is essential. Studies from Arslan, Hamarta, & Usla, 2010; Sexton & Orchard, 2016 and Bolton in his book People Skills point to five main benefits of resolving conflict.

Stress reduction

Ensuring that conflict resolution is effective can alleviate stress levels for all parties involved. A more positive and harmonious work environment reduces the emotional burden that can occur from workplace conflicts and improves overall job satisfaction.

Improved self-esteem

Too many clashes and arguments will result in low self esteem and negativity in the workplace. By addressing conflict in the workplace in a proactive and structured manner, employers can enable help individuals to navigate conflicts and reach resolutions which can boost individuals’ self-esteem and confidence. 

Improved self-efficacy

If people feel as though they are not always in conflict they will feel as though they are contributing and in some kind of control as to outcomes, which boosts a sense of self-efficacy. It provides a sense of accomplishment and the belief that they can handle future conflicts effectively and are able to use their problem solving skills effectively.

Better relationships

Creating better understanding between employees to reduce conflict in the workplace helps build better working relationships which can prevent conflicts from arising in the future. It also enables better decision making so that colleagues can move forward toward a common objective and see results.

Increased energy

A conflict-free work environment allows employees to focus their energy on their tasks and goals. It creates a positive atmosphere that encourages creativity, innovation, and collaboration.

What are the 3 C’s for resolving a conflict?

What the 3 Cs for resolving conflict are differs depending on who you speak to, but a good approach to take is:

  1. Clarity – what is the conflict, and what impact is it having? It’s important to have a sense of what the desired end goal of being able to resolve conflict is, and what an acceptable solution would be.
  2. Communication – effective communication is the most important aspect of conflict resolution. Seek to understand how the other person feels about the conflict, and use a mode of communication to resolve it that is acceptable to both parties involved. Take time to use active listening to hear all sides.
  3. Closure – once you have communicated and the conflict is resolved in a way that is workable, it is important to be able to move on and learn the lessons. 

Some other conflict resolution skills

Active listening

Truly listening to others’ viewpoints and concerns is vital in resolving conflicts. Practice active listening by giving your full attention, paraphrasing to show you have heard, and asking clarifying questions to ensure understanding.

Mental health resources

Prioritizing mental health and wellbeing can help reduce conflict and improve conflict resolution. Tools such as Wysa allow employees to understand more about themselves, reduce stress and tension, and feel more able to address challenges in the workplace. The meditation and mindfulness resources can enable people to focus and see things more clearly, and studies show that mindfulness-based interventions reduce the cortisol that leads to stress and can increase the likelihood of tension.

Managing expectations

Setting out clear expectations in the employee handbook of what effective workplace communication looks like in your organization can help resolve conflict as it provides clear parameters and guidelines to steer people in the right direction to resolve workplace conflict.

Communicate openly

Senior leaders should try to instil a psychologically safe culture where employees can communicate openly, without fear of judgment. You may consider employee resource groups where employees get together to discuss issues of importance to them, which can help improve overall communication and relationships. A study published in the International Journal of Business Communication found that respectful communication at work drives overall company resiliency.

Respect difference

We live in a diverse world, with different backgrounds, cultures and approaches making the workplace more varied – and potentially more innovative and creative – than ever. This means it is important to recognize that difference, and show respect to others, even if their approach, style and thoughts are different. A culture of tolerance and inclusivity can also be a successful one – Forbes research reported that diverse teams deliver 60% better results and make better decisions in 87% of cases.

Open door policy

An open door policy refers to a style of management and leadership where employees feel able to go to senior leaders and discuss work, issues and grievances in a respectful and confidential way. Having this additional place to address employee concerns can help resolve disputes before tensions escalate and create a culture of collaboration and trust.

What do to if workplace conflict gets too much 

If workplace conflict escalates it can negatively impact employee mental health and wellbeing. It is therefore essential to have preventative solutions such as Wysa available to help manage employee mental health before it escalates in severity. Wysa for Employers has been specially designed to address the spectrum of behavioral health difficulties that can exist in a workplace no matter where your employees are located in the world.

Photo by Yan Krukau

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