Workplace conflict: How to handle it like a pro

Most of us spend more time with our work colleagues than we do with our friends and families. For those working full-time, that’s eight hours or more a day, for five days or more a week.

Is it any surprise, therefore, that conflict can sometimes arise?

Let’s cut to the chase. There is a high cost to workplace conflict – emotionally, financially and on occasion, reputationally. Which is why it’s important that leaders like you know how to quickly get to the heart of any conflict and handle the situation before it escalates.

I’ve worked with lots of teams to help them resolve conflict. Most times it has been a really small thing that grew out of control because it was ignored. A bit like an untreated wound which can lead to a more serious infection.

Here are some of the root causes, along with solutions that I’ve found have worked over the years:

Root cause 1: A misunderstanding based on miscommunication For example, the team manager thinks they are being really clear in what they are asking to be done. The team member thinks they understand what the manager is asking and goes off to do it. The manager is then unhappy with what is delivered and communicates this. The team member is frustrated and withdraws their effort. This is then noticed by the manager who calls it out in a team meeeting. And so, the spiral continues.

The resolution: The team manager should take the team member to a private space to have a conversation about what has happened. The manager should not dominate the discussion – they really need to give at least half the air-time to the team member. Asking questions to ascertain where the misunderstanding was, including “How could I have communicated more clearly?” can help. More than anything, apologising for chastising the team member in front of others is a must. In fact, if the manager chastised in public then by rights they should apologise in public. This can have a dramatically positive effect.

In future: When I train managers in advanced facilitation skills, one of the things we look at is the importance of checking understanding before each party goes away. In the issue above, the manager could have asked the team member to play back their understanding of what had been asked – thereby flagging up a misunderstanding of the task.

Root cause 2: Personal values at odds with the organisation’s values I’ve written about this in a LinkedIn post. It’s also something that I discuss with my Masters students when we look at organisational values and leadership. Where this is the root cause, I’ve found it essentially comes down to the organisational leadership stating “Do as I say, not as I do”. This is a complex root cause and not an easy one to solve. Clues that this is the root cause in your team include comments made such as, “I don’t see why I should do xx when the chief executive doesn’t” or people being annoyed that there has been no training or development for a year, yet the organisation has values about ‘investing in staff’.

The resolution: If you think your team is in this place then there are a few things you can do. First, it starts with you – sit down with your team and have an open discussion about the organisation’s values. Which resonate with staff and which are seen as meaningless. Second, it’s still you – you need to feed this up the chain. If you have a decent HR/OD team, they should welcome this information. Third, yes it’s still you – talk to your team about your personal values and how you align them to the organisation’s.

In future: One approach I’ve seen work well is when a team has re-written the organisation’s values into language that means something to them. They’ve kept the core values (i.e. the headings) but made them their own. This requires team members to share what’s important to them.  This can be a really good thing to do as part of a team building activity.

Root cause 3: Being told not asked Similar yet different to the first root cause. For those of you familiar with transactional analysis, this is where the parent-child game is essentially taking place. We are all adults. Outside of work we manage our lives (admittedly to varying degrees) but nonetheless, we raise children, care for loved ones, pay bills etc. Why is it then, that in some organisations the minute we swipe our ID card that we stop being treated like adults?

The resolution: As adults, we like to be included in decisions particularly about things that affect us.  Your team members are no different. If you really can’t involve them in a decision that affects them – and you’d be hard pushed to give me an example – then explain to them why you can’t. The worst thing you can do, after announcing a decision, is to then go to ‘radio silence’. Yet, I see too many managers do this because they don’t know how to handle the kick back. Don’t be one of them.

In future: This is about how you communicate in general, not just communication of decisions. One thing I’ve found worked with managers is for them to sit down with each team member to find out how they preferred to be communicated with. For example, whilst one wants to hear it from you in person and just the high level reasons, another may want a lot of detail in writing. You need to adapt how you deliver messages to suit the individual – not the other way round!

Root cause 4: Feeling unsafe Humans since the beginning of time have had and still have an innate need to feel safe. Admittedly, it’s no longer sabre toothed tigers that present danger. Instead it’s organisational life and the danger of losing a job due to cuts. When people see valued colleagues around them losing their jobs it can lead to that visceral fight or flight reaction. If you’re experiencing conflict in your team, then it’s the fight side of things that’s dominating.

The resolution: Whilst you might have no choice but to cut jobs in your department, you do have a choice about how you do it. This links back to root cause number three. Involve team members at every step. More than anything communicate, communicate, communicate. You cannot over-communicate in this scenario. Your job is to reduce the fear of the unknown. The worst thing you can do is to keep things from your staff in the mistaken belief that you’re protecting them. Believe me, they won’t thank you for it – I’ve seen enough managers bitten by this mistake over the years.

In future: Think about the environment you create as the leader. In his talk about why good leaders make you feel safe, Simon Sinek talks about the importance of environment and creating a ‘circle of safety’ based on trust and co-operation. You need to put the work in to achieve this – through regular communication, team building and clearly setting your expectations. Lay the foundations from the beginning of your tenure as ‘the boss’ and it will stand you in good stead during the tough times and help your team to feel safe in your hands.

What have your experiences been of workplace conflict? How have you resolved them? Were there some things that worked better than others? Share your thoughts in the comments section so others like you can benefit.


Did you find this post helpful? I’d love to know, so Tweet me, or drop me a note on LinkedIn. If you have any colleagues that you feel should read this, too, please share it with them. I’d really appreciate it.

I also have a monthly newsletter which is a compilation of blog posts, helpful research, and reviews of books and podcasts – all aimed at helping managers and leaders become more confident in handling a range of workplace issues. You can subscribe here -> SUBSCRIBE

If you liked this post, you might also like these:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.