Understanding How to Deal With Conflict in the Workplace

by Mikaela Kiner on Mar 31, 2016 1:00:00 PM

Understanding How to Deal With Conflict in the Workplace by TINYpulseYour brain may shut down when you hear the word conflict. If so, you’re not alone. Conflict invokes everything from sibling rivalry to marital disagreements and the recent GOP debates. For many, conflict at work is the worst.

Our identity is wrapped up in our work, so the stakes are high. There are power struggles. Customers and managers to please. Raises and promotions to earn. You work hard, then one of your peers swoops in and takes credit. Or the boss starts micromanaging when a project is nearly done, and you have to start over. Sound familiar?

Fans of The No Asshole Rule take it for granted that we should treat each other with respect, even (or especially) when we disagree. Others may not be so sure. Even if you’re on the fence, there’s no denying that conflict at work gets in the way of productivity, results, and employee engagement. Consider these stats from the CPP Global Human Capital Report:

  • Most employees at all levels experience conflict regularly, in varying degrees
  • U.S. employees spend 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflict, equating to approximately $359 billion in paid hours in 2008
  • 25% of employees have seen conflict result in sickness or absence
  • The average employee spends approximately one day a month dealing with conflict in some way — whether involved in conflict or helping others manage it
  • Two-thirds of employees have gone out of their way to avoid a colleague because of a disagreement at work.

Even in companies with award winning “best places to work” cultures, there’s conflict. We can’t get rid of it. The goal, as Craig Runde, director of the Center for Conflict Dynamics says, is to become conflict competent. Those who are good at conflict recognize when they’re in it, are constructive, and look for solutions. They don’t get overly frustrated or bent out of shape, insist they’re always right, or plot to get even. They don’t avoid conflict, or let small disagreements snowball.  

Can’t We Just Ignore It?

The short answer is no. Conflict avoidance leads to artificial harmony, and conflict over-done results in argumentative, combative cultures where people explain away rudeness by saying they have a “direct” communication style. You want an environment that fosters healthy conflict — when it comes up, people deal with it and move on. Sound utopian? Maybe, but there are tangible steps you can take to get there.

We all have natural responses to conflict — both constructive and destructive. All of the constructive responses are equally useful, and every one of the destructive responses can be equally damaging. Understanding how we respond to conflict is the first step in taking control and behaving how we would like to versus how we’re wired. When you look at the table below, it won’t take long for you to recognize your own tendencies.


We all have hot buttons or triggers —things that really set us off. The most common hot buttons come from working with people who are: unreliable, overly analytical, unappreciative, aloof, micromanaging, self-centered, abrasive, untrustworthy, and hostile. Maybe you’re reminded of a peer, your boss, or office mate. Maybe that person is driving you just a little bit crazy. What to do?

Getting Good at Conflict

Change starts with you. Next time you’re heading into a conversation where you anticipate conflict, don’t just stew. Plan ahead, and prepare in writing like you would for any important meeting. Use these tips to get ready:

  • What are your goals?
  • How do you want to be viewed after the conflict resolution session?
  • Describe the conflict from both perspectives objectively - just the facts, no judgment.
  • Plan how you will remain open, and listen without interrupting or showing anger.
  • Choose a win/win solution (remember you are looking for compromise, not victory) and develop an action plan.

Reflect on how you behave when there’s conflict and what you’d like to do differently. If possible, get feedback from your peers, boss, and team. If you're lucky, your workplace offers training on conflict and difficult conversations. If not, here are some other ways to build your conflict competence. Consider taking an assessment like the Conflict Dynamics Profile (CDP). Work with a coach or mentor, or share your goals with someone else you trust who’s willing to hold you accountable. There are also plenty of good books to choose from. Remember, more than three-quarters of employees have seen conflict lead to a positive outcome, such as better understanding of others or a better solution to a workplace problem. You too can be one of them.


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This post was written by Mikaela Kiner

Mikaela is a native Seattleite, and her resume is a who’s who of iconic Northwest companies including Microsoft, Starbucks, Amazon, PopCap Games, and Redfin. After fifteen years in HR, Mikaela took the leap and became an entrepreneur. Starting uniquelyHR allowed her to be creative, add value, and limit bureaucracy in a field that many leaders love to hate. Clients appreciate her combination of strategic thinking and hands-on execution.

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